Deforestation for Agricultural Use Increases Risk of Animal‑to‑Human Disease: Study


Apr 16, 2020


Image Credit: Sam Beebe

The chances of viruses that get transmitted from animals to people, like the coronavirus, will be higher, if people continue to transform animals’ natural habitats into agricultural land, a new study by Stanford University has found.

“At a time when COVID-19 is causing an unprecedented level of economic, social, and health devastation, it is essential that we think critically about how human behaviors increase our interactions with disease-infected animals,” said lead author Laura Bloomfield, a PhD candidate at the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences at Stanford University, in a press release. “The combination of major environmental change, like deforestation, and poverty can spark the fire of a global pandemic,” she added.

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For the analysis, the researchers first collected land use survey data from small-scale farmers living near forest fragments. Then, using satellite imagery, they collected information on how the pattern of landscape use was likely to make certain people have contact with wild animals.

Researchers found two points of human-wild primate contact: the length of the forest boundary where people had their homes, and the frequency with which people went into the forests to collect trees needed for construction of their homes. According to the researchers, the collection of these trees requires people to spend more time in parts of the forest that are wild primate habitats as compared to other forest-based activities.

And researchers found more contact happened in small fragments of residual forest – the area with small trees that remain after the clearing of a forest — and not larger expanses of habitat where people went to collect trees, as researchers had assumed would be the case.

They concluded that the continuous loss of forest lands means wild primates and humans are increasingly sharing the same spaces and looking out for the same food, increasing the chances of zoonotic transmission, or animal-to-human disease.

As of today, nearly half of the world’s land has been converted into agricultural lands, the study mentions. But in order to limit the transmission of diseases, researchers suggest the creation of small buffer zones or reforested areas around biodiversity-rich forests to decrease the interaction between humans and wild primates.

In addition to that, they also suggest giving national or international aid to people to enable them to buy fuel and construction material to reduce their activity in the forests.

“At the end of the day, land conservation and the reduction of forest fragmentation is our best bet to reduce human-wild animal interactions,” says coauthor Tyler McIntosh, a former graduate student in the Stanford Earth Systems Program, in the press release.


Written By Anubhuti Matta

Anubhuti Matta is an associate editor with The Swaddle. When not at work, she’s busy pursuing kathak, reading books on and by women in the Middle East or making dresses out of Indian prints.


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