How the hard lesson of Covid could help gorillas

Poppy pictured here in August 2015 was the last living mountain gorilla made famous by Dian Fossey in Gorillas in the Mist.

Tara Stoinski is the president, CEO and chief scientific officer of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.

(CNN)The sudden and deadly appearance of Covid-19 has shaken our nations around the world to their core. Governments were caught by surprise, unprepared to battle a pandemic within their own borders. But here's the thing: We in the conservation community weren't surprised at all.

For years we've been warning that human destruction of wild ecosystems is upsetting nature's delicate balance and putting wildlife -- and humans -- at risk, while leading to dangerous and potentially irreversible climate change. Sadly, it's humanity's mistreatment of nature that has brought the devastation that we now see as a result of Covid-19.
Scientists are working to contain the spread of the virus, and will likely find a cure or a vaccine. But what then? The global pandemic has brought the world to its collective knees, and when we all can finally get up, we'll need to make some big changes in the way we live on this planet, our only home.
    My career in science has been focused on studying and conserving gorillas. Our efforts in Rwanda to protect the "gorillas in the mist," made famous by our founder and namesake Dian Fossey, have contributed to a rare conservation success story. Dian thought mountain gorillas would be extinct by the year 2000, but instead, they are coming back from the brink, with their numbers slowly but steadily growing over the past three decades.
    With just over 1,000 mountain gorillas remaining on the planet, they remain at risk and are a conservation dependent species. However, their story clearly shows that through effective governmental leadership, on-the-ground partnership, and community-based initiatives to improve quality of life for people living nearby, we can change the tide for a species on the brink of extinction -- and for the planet.
    In addition to our field operations in Rwanda, we work to conserve critically endangered Grauer's gorillas in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Unlike their cousin, the mountain gorilla, Grauer's numbers are decreasing rapidly. By 2015, an estimated 77% of Grauer's gorillas were lost in two decades, primarily as a result of poaching tied to the often illegal trade in conflict minerals used in small electronics, like cellular phones. These gorillas' population plummeted from 16,900 individuals to just approximately 3,800, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species. What happens if gorillas disappear from this complex ecosystem?
    Gorillas inhabit the Congo basin, the second largest tropical rainforest in the world. It stretches across six countries, from the DRC in the east all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. At the Fossey Fund, we are working with local communities to protect 1,300 square kilometers of this forest and its inhabitants. We need the forests of the Congo basin and other tropical areas to remain intact and healthy -- not just for wildlife, but for humanity's sake. They serve as the "lungs" of our planet, by taking in carbon dioxide (tropical forests absorb roughly 14% of human caused carbon emissions) and releasing oxygen. However, recent studies show the Congo basin forests are losing their ability to absorb carbon, likely a result of decreased growth from increasing drought and heat. To put it simply, climate change is now affecting our best natural defense against climate change.
    This makes gorillas, and the thousands of other species that live in these forests, even more important. They play a critical role in maintaining the health of these ecosystems. Think of gorillas as gardeners -- they spread seeds by eating, distribute fertilizer through defecating, and help shape plant communities through their foraging and nest building behaviors.
    Human exploitation of the earth's remaining wild places, like the Congo basin, is destroying habitats at an unprecedented rate. In 2017 alone, we lost 39 million acres of tropical rainforest -- the equivalent of 40 football fields each minute. We are also decimating wildlife populations, with more than one million species now threatened with extinction, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
    And there are serious effects on humans themselves. These forests are our best natural defense against climate change. And as Covid-19 has brought into stark relief, by destroying nature we are creating the perfect conditions for disease transmission. Ebola. Zika. West Nile. Lyme. HIV. These are all diseases that, like the novel coronavirus, existed in animal populations before they were able to successfully make the leap to humans.
    People-focused wildlife conservation provides one avenue to preserving wild spaces and stopping this animal-to-human disease "jump." For example, our work in the DRC provides jobs, education and increased access to food resources, raising the standard of living for Congolese families. This in turn protects gorillas, along with the plants, animals and insects that share their habitat. It keeps the forest ecosystems of central Africa intact and pristine, ensuring that the trees retain their capacity to absorb carbon dioxide, slowing climate change and protecting us all.
    Covid-19 has made abundantly clear that our assault on the world's biodiversity is also an assault on ourselves. It has proven that we can no longer afford to dismiss the problems scientists and conservationists uncover in faraway places. As forests are destroyed, people and wildlife increasingly come into contact; as the commercial wildlife trade expands, the crossover of diseases from animals to people occurs.
    We simply must take better care of the natural world. Healthy ecosystems are some of our best defenses against the challenges climate change is bringing.
    In the past, it has seemed a herculean effort to effect the major changes that are needed to address the underlying causes of environmental destruction, from poverty to excessive consumerism. However, I believe Covid-19 has taught us some important lessons. We have witnessed a global mobilization in the fight against this virus. We've seen the research community focus intensive efforts and resources on vaccines and therapies; we've seen industry adapt manufacturing capabilities to produce needed medical equipment and supplies, or to adopt teleworking practices that enable workers to socially distance; and we've seen individuals and families make personal sacrifices for the greater good. We're also seeing nature's ability to heal itself, as noticeably clearer skies and waterways emerged in a relatively short period of time, as human activities slowed dramatically under social distancing and shelter-in-place protocols.
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    We can learn from this experience. We can choose to return to "normal," or we can use this break to rethink the way we collectively prioritize our health, safety and wellbeing. We can make individual choices to buy sustainable products, recycle, and walk or bike rather than drive. We can make choices as a society to elect leaders who are informed by science and reason, rather than hunches or ideology. We can bring the resources of governments, industry and academia to bear to prevent the next deadly virus from emerging.
      We need to muster the political will to scale people-focused conservation to protect broader swaths of habitat worldwide. The natural world is trying to send us a message, but we need to listen.
      The world's response to coronavirus has demonstrated that we can do big things if we work together. Let's learn from this hard lesson our planet is teaching us and start working to heal our forests, our planet and ourselves.