Peatland conservation may prevent new diseases from jumping to humans

Local fishers paddle through the smoky haze from peatland fires in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo by Suzanne Turnock/Borneo Nature Foundation
Local fishers paddle through the smoky haze from peatland fires in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo by Suzanne Turnock/Borneo Nature Foundation

Nov. 17 (UPI) -- In a new paper, scientists argue tropical peatland areas have been mostly ignored as potential settings for new diseases to jump from animals to humans.

According to the authors of the new study, published Tuesday in journal PeerJ, better protecting and restoring tropical peat-swamp forests could help curb the effects of the current pandemic, and also prevent the emergence of future zoonotic diseases.


COVID-19 has changed the way we look at the world -- and scientists say it's also changed the way they look at their areas of expertise.

"As it became increasingly clear that COVID-19 wasn't going to magically disappear in a few weeks, we began thinking and talking about what the potential impacts of the pandemic might be on the conservation of this ecosystem and resident local communities, and the idea of this paper was conceived," lead study author Mark Harrison, an ecologist and postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Exeter in Britain, told UPI in an email.


In their paper, Harrison and his colleagues acknowledge that tropical peatland aren't unique in their potential to host zoonotic disease transmission, but claim that they've been largely ignored.

Peatland areas host high levels of biodiversity. They're also subject to increasing levels of habitat destruction and wildlife harvesting. These attributes make tropical peat-swamp forests ripe for animal-to-human disease transmission.

The risk isn't just hypothetical.

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"The joint-first reported case of Ebola in 1976 is from a peatland area, in Yambuku, Democratic Republic of Congo, and the cradle of the HIV/AIDS pandemic is believed to be around Kinshasa, DRC, another area with extensive peatlands," Harrison said.

Researchers suggest tropical peatlands aren't necessarily riskier than other tropical environs, and shouldn't be viewed as an ecosystem to be fearful of.

"Rather, the evidence suggests there is a risk that has not been previously highlighted, and that this risk will be reduced through protection and restoration of these ecosystems and their wildlife," Harrison said.

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Previous studies have suggested the risk of animal-human disease transmission is greatest among degraded habitats. In the new paper, researchers argue protecting peatlands can curb the risk of zoonotic disease emergence and transmission.

Scientists suggest peatland conservation efforts focus on keeping peatland habitat sufficiently wet.


"Conversion and use of tropical peatlands commonly involves their drainage, which leads to peat degradation and high dry season fire risk, posing serious threats to global climate, biodiversity and -- as we highlight in our paper -- public health," Harrison said.

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"Most important is therefore preventing conversion to drained peat uses and where necessary restoring the natural wet, flooded conditions of these swamps, to protect the peat, keep its carbon locked up and reduce the risk of fire," he said.

To protect peatlands and prevent their drainage, researchers suggest policy makers must not only focus on ecological health, but also address a complex array of social, economic and political issues where the needs of local populations are in conflict with the needs of the environment.

In addition to reducing the risk of future pandemics, researchers claim efforts to protect and restore peatlands can help mitigate the effects of the current COVID-19 pandemic.

"One important way that tropical peatland conservation and restoration can help mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic is through preventing peat wildfires, which can occur annually in parts of South-east Asia and produce thick smoke clouds that are known to impact human health," Harrison said.

"Researchers working in other areas have recently identified air pollution as a risk factor leading to increased COVID-19 case numbers, hospital admissions and mortalities, so there is a clear risk here in relation to tropical peatland fires," he said.


Harrison and his colleagues describe their paper as a collection of "informed predictions" about the possible impacts of COVID-19 on peatland conservation and vice versa.

Moving forward, researchers suggest efforts must be taken to collect field data throughout and beyond the pandemic in order to gauge the accuracy of their predictions.

"This won't become clear for many years, so in the mean time it is important to focus research efforts on improving the resilience of tropical peatland ecosystems and communities, including establishing how to improve the health of peatland ecosystems, resident human communities and the relationships between these," Harrison said.

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