Study Shows Loss of Forest Linked to Spread of Disease

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A study out of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment has shed new light on the many impacts to humans and wildlife that come through the practice of deforestation. The study focused on Uganda’s Kibale National Park, specifically looking at areas where naturally forested habitat meets human infrastructure. This human activity takes the form of dwellings, roads, and fields used for animal rearing and agriculture.

The study looked at ecological factors as well as individual human behaviors to track how the loss of forested land increased the interactions between humans and animals. As forested habitat is lost, animals that once had all the resources they needed to survive around them increasingly ventured into areas populated by people in order to meet those same needs.

Conversely, the humans living on the borders of Kibale were also looking for new places to gather needed resources. Trees are cut down in order to provide firewood for local families, in addition to creating clear cut spaces for animals to graze or agricultural products to grow. 

Implications of Deforestation

Increased interactions between humans and animals can lead to a rise in animal to human viruses, like COVID-19 and HIV. As natural habitat shrinks and humans push further and further into forests, they come in closer contact with animals also feeling the pressure of a shrinking environment. 

As habitats become increasingly fragmented, the number of interactions between humans and wildlife increases.  Source: Bloomfield, McIntosh. & Lambin, 2020.
As habitats become increasingly fragmented, the number of interactions between humans and wildlife increases. Source: Bloomfield, McIntosh. & Lambin, 2020.

This body of research examined individual human behaviors and how those actions influenced interactions with wildlife. Surveys of local farmers combined with satellite imagery showed that people who went into the forest to gather firewood were the most likely to experience an interaction with wildlife on a more frequent basis than others. 

Future Recommendations

The researchers not only looked at the ecological impacts of forest loss, but at the risks that these actions pose towards human health. Although the focus of interest was a relatively small area, this data is highly important for drawing connections between habitat loss and risk factors to human health in a greater context.

The authors recommended creating forested buffer zones between Kibale and nearby human settlements, creating fewer areas of standalone forests surrounded by human development that animals could become trapped in. Additionally, the study examined issues relating to poverty and access to resources in local communities that would decrease the necessity for people to use forested land to meet their immediate needs. 

Resources:

Bloomfield, L. S. P., McIntosh, T. L., & Lambin, E. F. (2020). Habitat fragmentation, livelihood behaviors, and contact between people and nonhuman primates in Africa. Landscape Ecology35(4), 985–1000. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10980-020-00995-w

Jordan, Rob. Stanford researchers show how forest loss leads to spread of disease. 8 April 2020. Retrieved from https://news.stanford.edu/press-releases/2020/04/08/understanding-spse-animals-human/

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