Deforestation is Causing Viruses in Ugandan Wildlife


Research conducted by the University of Stirling and the University of Wisconsin-Madison has revealed a concerning trend: animals in the forests of Uganda’s Budongo are turning to unconventional sources for sustenance, inadvertently exposing themselves to viruses, including one linked to COVID-19.

At the heart of this discovery lies the aftermath of tobacco farming, a practice that has inadvertently disrupted the Budongo’s ecosystem. Traditionally, the native wildlife thrived on the fruits of palm trees. However, the relentless harvesting of these trees for tobacco drying purposes has driven them to extinction, leaving the forest denizens scrambling for alternative food sources.

Bat guano now serves as food for Budongo’s inhabitants. Chimpanzees, antelopes, and monkeys have been observed partaking in this unorthodox feast, unaware of the viral dangers lurking within. Cameras set up by Dr. Pawel Fedurek captured the startling scenes, prompting a comprehensive six-year study to unravel the implications.

Lab analysis of the guano samples revealed a staggering array of viruses, with one in particular catching the researchers’ attention – a relative of the notorious SARS-CoV-2, the culprit behind the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

While the transmissibility of this specific betacoronavirus to humans remains uncertain, its presence underscores the potential for viral spillover from wildlife to human populations.

Professor Tony Goldberg of the University of Wisconsin-Madison said, “All 27 viruses were new to science, so we don’t know what effects they might have on humans or other animals. But one virus stood out because it was a relative of a virus everyone knows: SARS coronavirus 2.”

Dr. Fedurek underscores the broader implications of their research, highlighting how subtle deforestation driven by global demands can inadvertently expose wildlife – and by extension, humans – to viral risks.

He said, “Our research illustrates how a subtle form of selective deforestation, ultimately driven by global demand for tobacco, can expose wildlife and, by extension, humans to viruses residing in bat guano, increasing virus spillover risk.

Studies like ours shed light on the triggers and pathways of both wildlife-to-wildlife and wildlife-to-human virus transmission, ultimately improving our abilities to prevent outbreaks and pandemics in the future.”

This article by Trinity Sparke was first published by One Green Planet on 27 April 2024. Image Credit :Lillac/Shutterstock.

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