FIGARO EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW - The COVID-19 pandemic must not make us forget to protect biodiversity, the famous primatologist and Director-General of UNESCO joined forces to recall in a joint interview with Le Figaro.
by Delphine Chayet and Cyrille Vanlerberghe
Published yesterday at 21:56, updated yesterday at 21:56
On the occasion of the International Day for Biological Diversity, Friday 22 May, Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, Jane Goodall, a primatologist famous for her studies on chimpanzees and ambassador for the Great Apes Survival Partnership launched by the United Nations, remind us that the global COVID-19 crisis must not make us forget to defend our planet's flora and fauna.
LE FIGARO - 2020 was supposed to be a key year for biodiversity, but the international summits have been postponed. Are you concerned that this issue will be overlooked because of COVID-19?
Jane Goodall. - I think that, on the contrary, people understand that that we are experiencing this crisis because of the destruction of wilderness environments and attacks on wild animals, which are hunted and then sold in markets. So, I hope that when all this is over, the pandemic will help us to protect nature and biodiversity.
But in the shorter term, there are also some very negative effects. The decline in international tourism seems to have led to an increase in poaching in some African countries. In particular, there has been an upsurge in attacks on rhinos in Botswana. Some local communities have lost income from tourism, and no longer see the point of protecting wildlife. When tourism does not disturb the animals too much, local communities place a high value on species protection, and this can help protect the animals.
Audrey Azoulay. - There is a risk, especially given the blockages that exist in today's global intergovernmental discussions. Certainly, the world has come together as never before to mitigate the effects of the global pandemic, but the effects of the climate and biodiversity crisis are often less well perceived because they seem less immediate, even though they are decisive for our common future. Scientists are very clear, however, as they were on the occasion of the first global report on biodiversity presented at UNESCO one year ago. Maybe the current pandemic will at least be an opportunity to note the enormous collective cost of radical changes in lifestyles, which come with hardship for the most vulnerable, and will therefore encourage us to manage these changes better, by anticipation, in terms of our relationship with nature.
What is UNESCO doing to preserve biodiversity?
A. A. - UNESCO is very committed on this front, which is connected with cultural diversity, in order to understand, preserve and restore biodiversity. We work first of all on scientific knowledge, through global intergovernmental programmes, for example on ocean sciences and freshwater resources.
We also help to preserve natural areas through the 213 natural world heritage sites and the network of more than 700 biosphere reserves in 124 countries. Together with geoparks, these areas together represent the equivalent of the surface area of China, i.e. more than 6% of the planet’s land mass. Finally, we are experimenting with new ways of rebuilding the link between humanity and nature, which has been all too often interrupted, by drawing on scientific knowledge, local and indigenous knowledge and sustainable practices.
An outbreak of COVID-19 among the great apes could threaten their very existence, in addition to the other threats they are facing. How can we protect them?
J. G. - There are no known cases of great apes being infected with the new coronavirus yet. But we are very vigilant because they are known to be highly sensitive to human respiratory diseases, which are often deadly for them. We should not forget that chimpanzees share 98.6% of their DNA with us humans. All the scientists are taking the problem very seriously, and are avoiding approaching the apes at the moment. We have suspended our work in Gombe, United Republic of Tanzania, where our chimpanzee research centre is located, even though fortunately the virus has not yet been detected in the region.
A. A. - Nearly 70% of the great ape population has disappeared in the last 50 years, and that makes the threat from COVID-19 even greater. UNESCO is taking several measures to protect them. We act at the political level, such as through the Great Apes Survival Partnership, which has more than 105 members. We are helping to protect and manage their habitat in 34 biosphere reserves and world heritage sites, which are home to populations of 11 of the 12 species of great ape. The Gunung Leuser Reserve in Indonesia, for example, covers the entire range of the Sumatran orangutan. Conservation areas must be further expanded and local and indigenous communities have a vital role to play as the true custodians of great ape-related traditions and cosmogonies.
This is the third time in 15 years that a coronavirus has crossed the species barrier to infect the human population. Could future crises be avoided?
A. A. - The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) global biodiversity report presented at UNESCO warned of the risk of an increase in infectious diseases due to land fragmentation and biodiversity loss. We need to invest more in research. Our next report on science will show that scientific research accounts for only 1.72% of GDP worldwide, against a target of 3.5%, with clear disparities.
J. G. - The risk of viruses crossing the species barrier has been known for a long time, and has already caused deadly epidemics such as Ebola and SARS. But this has not been enough to change the situation, because massive financial interests are at stake. It is very profitable to clear the virgin forest, then sell the wood and grow plants to feed livestock in intensive farming operations. Added to this is the fact that wildlife trafficking is a multi-billion-dollar global market that fuels corruption in many countries.
And a large part of this traffic goes to Asia, for ivory as well as for ingredients used in traditional medicine, such as pangolin scales in particular. Fortunately though, since the coronavirus crisis, there has been a marked shift in opinion in China against the exploitation of live animals. This is an important point, because although China has banned the import and sale of wild animals for food, it is still allowed for traditional medecine, which is obviously most unfortunate.
Are you worried that this crisis will weaken the multilateral system, thus reducing the possibility of a collective response to protect biodiversity and combat climate change?
A. A. - This is a global crisis which concerns the whole planet and shows, if it were necessary, how closely societies are interconnected. Multilateralism can be an essential asset at every stage: sharing data and experiences, finding emergency solutions during the crisis, accompanying the transition phase, acting in a concerted manner and then anticipating.
UNESCO has, for example, been able to provide very strong support to its Member States on the subject of distance education. To weaken the multilateral system is to deprive ourselves of an investment we patiently built up over time, and to lose opportunities to do better together. Having said that, the system is not perfect, it can and must improve, and this is only possible with the involvement of the Member States and sufficient protection of the general interest.
Do you hope that the world after the pandemic will be different from what it was before?
A. A. - In any case, now is the time to think with new, adapted perspectives and ideas and not ready-made or dated old ones. This week we are launching the UNESCO Forums, and for this first series we are giving the floor to women, whose voices have not resonated strongly enough during this crisis, around key values such as solidarity, ethics and diversity.
J. G. - I am actually quite optimistic. I think people who live in big cities have discovered through lockdown what it is like to breathe cleaner air, to live in a quieter environment and to see the stars in the sky at night. I do not think they will want to go back to pollution like before, so I hope they will be ready to change their lifestyle, to have less impact on the planet.
Translation by UNESCO
Dr. Jane Goodall, DBE
Founder - the Jane Goodall Institute & UN Messenger of Peace
For more on the Jane Goodall Institute: www.janegoodall.org
Jane Goodall photo credit ©VincentCalmel