If there is anything that we can all agree upon right now, it is that we are living through a pivotal moment in our world’s history. After three weeks of practicing social distancing at my father’s home in rural east Tennessee, there seem to be more and more questions emerging in my own mind as to what this is all going to mean in the long run, when we can hope for a return to normalcy, and what that new normal might look like. And, I’m sure that if you’re reading this, many of the same questions and anxieties have snuck into your own mind throughout each day as this ongoing pandemic develops.
Our roster of clients at Backcountry Journeys contains a diverse range of people from all over the world and from a wide array of backgrounds. But, we all share a few things in common as well. We are lovers of all things wild and beautiful, and through our exploration and photography, we act as stewards for the protection of the natural world and all the creatures that inhabit it. As I have sat here in near isolation, pondering the new reality that we find ourselves adapting to, a string of connection has appeared from what we do as stewards of wildlife conservation and the origin of COVID-19.
As the news first began to break of the spread of COVID-19, rumors began to fly about the origins of the virus. Conspiracy theories about it being a lab-grown pathogen quickly began making waves on the internet. Memes about bat soup spread like wildfire across social media. And questions about the public health issues surrounding the consumption of wild animals began making headlines. But, the direct link, the moment when this novel coronavirus entered the human population remains a mystery.
Here is what we do know. Firstly, the implications of the COVID-19 coronavirus being synthetic, or lab-grown, are so troubling that several groups of scientists have set out to confirm or deny this possibility. And, we can now say for sure that this new virus, known officially as SARS-CoV-2, was not engineered by humans. An article published in the journal Nature Medicine cited a study conducted by a team of researchers from Tulane, The University of Sydney, The University of Edinburgh, and Columbia University. They uncovered several key findings that pointed to COVID-19 being the result of a naturally evolved virus. One of these discoveries was the unique molecular backbone of this virus. Had COVID-19 been the result of engineering, it would have to have been designed on the molecular backbone of a known coronavirus strain. But, the molecular structure of SARS-CoV-2 is unique and not previously known to science.
“By comparing the available genome sequence data for known coronavirus strains, we can firmly determine that SARS-CoV-2 originated through natural processes,” said Kristian Andersen, Ph.D., an associate professor of immunology and microbiology at Scripps Research and corresponding author on the paper.
The team’s research led them to hypothesize with a great deal of certainty that this virus originated in animals and then jumped to people. How does this happen? Well, let’s rewind the clock to 2003 when the first-ever known severe illness caused by a coronavirus emerged on the scene with the outbreak of SARS or Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome.
In China in 2003, a new illness began spreading that caused severe respiratory distress which would eventually kill 774 people. Like COVID-19, SARS was caused by a coronavirus. And since 2003, we have learned a great deal about how and why this disease happened.
In Nature, The International Weekly Journal of Science an article was published citing the results on an enormous survey of bats from all over the globe. The survey found that bats contained a wide range of coronaviruses which led to the widely believed theory that bats are the animal reservoir of infection for coronaviruses. “A reservoir of infection is any person, animal, plant, soil or substance in which an infectious agent normally lives and multiplies. The reservoir typically harbors the infectious agent without injury to itself and serves as a source from which other individuals can be infected,” as quoted from MedicineNet.com.
But, with SARS, the jump to people did not occur directly from bats. It came from an animal called a civet, also known as civet cats. The civet is a medium-sized mammal native to Africa and Asia. And, in certain provinces in China, civets are still regularly eaten and traded in wildlife markets. Though we cannot be sure of the exact moment the SARS coronavirus jumped from bats to civets, it can be deduced that the resulting viral outbreak in people began in a place where bats, civets, and people were all in close contact with one another. Where would this occur? A wet market in China.
The Chinese, as well as many other cultures across the globe, still regularly partake in the trade and consumption of wildlife. Whether as traditional medicine, as pets, or as food, the trade of wildlife remains a big part of the Chinese economy and culture in certain provinces. As a result, across the country of China, as well as in other places in the world, there are markets that sell live wildlife as well as wildlife products, bringing people into close proximity with a wide array of different animals. The result is a potential breeding ground and highway system for new Diseases.
During the 2003 SARS outbreak, scientists were able to trace the source of the outbreak to a colony of cave-dwelling horseshoe bats in the Yunnan Province in south China. The virus then jumped to the animal intermediary, the civet, before then infecting a farmer. It is not known whether the jump form bat to civet occurred in a market, but it is known that the subsequent jump to a human host was the result of close human proximity to a captive civet, a wild animal.
Today, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists are working to trace the exact origin of SARS-CoV-2. Through studies of the virus’s genome, they are reasonably certain that the virus, in some form, originated in bats, but that an animal intermediary was surely at play. One of the suspected animals on that list is the endangered Pangolin. The Pangolin is a scaled, anteater-like mammal that is used for both meat and traditional medicine in China. Trade of the Pangolin has been banned in China due to its endangered status, but the black market demand for it and other wild animals and wild animal products is still strong in China.
This takes us to the wet market in Hunnan District in China, the suspected origin of SARS-CoV-2. A wet market is called so because animals are regularly slaughtered for customers on-premises. Because of this, blood and other fluids are regularly aerosolized, creating the potential for cross-species contamination. There are several COVID-19 cases linked to the Hunnan District wet market, but the direct lineage from bat to human has yet to be traced definitively.
As far as the pangolin goes, coronaviruses have been found in animals that were being sold at the Hunnan wet market, but the genome of the pangolin coronavirus only matches the human variant by 91.3% when sampling the entire genome. In the case of SARS, the genome of the virus sampled from captive civets bore over a 99% similarity to the one that was causing disease in humans. This means that the virus that jumped to humans has not yet been discovered, or that the virus jumped to people some time ago and then evolved in a human host into the disease-causing form that is causing the global pandemic today. Most scientists suspect that the former is the case and that the direct source of the virus to humans has not yet been found.
So, you may be asking, how does a wet market in China relate to me, a wildlife photographer and conservationist? It is simply more evidence pointing towards the importance of keeping our wildlife wild and conserving wild places for the animals that inhabit them. With the ongoing issue of habitat destruction taking place around the globe, people and wild animals are coming into closer and closer contact. Furthermore, wildlife trade does not just occur in China and other Asian countries. It happens all over the world in the global pet and food trade. It is just one more reason, and perhaps the most important reason, that wildlife should be kept wild.
As stewards for the conservation of our wild places and animals, we can continue our important work of educating others about our planet’s precious wild resources, as well as continuing to provide the economic incentives for the protection of wild places by continuing to travel there and practicing responsible ecotourism.
Countries like Costa Rica have learned that the value of its wild places is not in its destruction and sale, but by preserving it as a haven for wildlife, thus creating a destination for wildlife enthusiasts to visit and enjoy for generations to come.
And that is what we are all about at Backcountry Journeys. As guides, naturalists, and conservationists, we believe that through travel and exploration we can promote the continued conservation of our planet’s great wildlife. And though, at this moment, travel is not wise, we encourage everyone to begin thinking about where you want to go next. The global pandemic of COVID-19 will come to an end. And, when that day comes, BCJ will be here to help you see and photograph our planet’s most beautiful wild places and animals.
Wherever you are right now, this pandemic is touching you in some way, and tragically in some cases. But, there is always hope, and of course, there is our certainty that this will indeed pass. And each of us by doing our part, not only to protect ourselves and our loved ones but also to protect others in our community are helping to slow the rate of infection on a global scale. So, keep your hope up and stay safe in this time of COVID-19.
Ben Blankenship was born in Nashville, Tennessee. As a young man, he studied ceramics and fine arts. In college, he pursued filmmaking, writing, and photography. After graduation, he worked for nearly a decade in broadcast television as a video editor, photographer, and cinematographer. Over the last several years, he has transitioned into working full-time as a photojournalist and travel photographer. He has worked abroad in Costa Rica, Belize, and Uganda. His photographic passions include wildlife, conservation, travel, events, and documenting social and political events around the world. His work has been published in the New York Times, The Oregonian Newspaper, and by Photographers Without Borders. He currently splits his time between living in Costa Rica and Tennessee. See the most recent work on his website here: www.ben-blankenship.com