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How green buffers can stop, if not eliminate, zoonotic pandemics

Rajesh Gopal and Mohnish Kapoor / HINDUSTAN TIMES Share:
Man encroaching on natural tropical forest. AFP

Much has been spoken and published over the years by national governments and organisations on the importance and the need to save nature. Looking back, precious little seems to have happened to safeguard ecosystems.

Going by the wildlife parlance, we dwell in our habitats – rather micro-habitats – which are subsets of a larger entity – the landscape, this is not a benign entity, but is subjected to environmental processes and man-made effects. These define a landscape’s dynamics and influence its subsets such as forests, rural, and urban settings. Hence, looking beyond becomes crucial for our wellbeing.

In the Anthropocene era, humans have left no stone unturned for materialistic gains. The COVID-19 pandemic is a case in point and a wakeup call. But then, where does the green space fit in all this?

Globally, landscapes are transforming as a result of economic geography. Such transformations have altered the natural state, leading to distortions in the ecological food-web of forested and non-forested environments. Humans must remember that biodiversity does not end in a forest or a protected area, but exists even in the ecosystems such as agriculture and plants in a city. Lakes, gardens, shelter belts are ecologically as relevant as forests.

Many zoonotic pandemics like COVID-19 can best be stopped, if not eliminated, through green buffers. The phenological cycle of plant growth in forest, rural, or urban settings harbour a plethora of life forms with intricate vector cycles, many of which we do not know. This assumes more importance in forests owing to their sylvatic cycles and ecological successions. Our compelling needs have arrested or altered such cycles at various stages, while crippling the ability of such ecosystems to perform their function (which also includes reducing the recurrence of zoonotic disease pandemics).

Although much has been stated about ecosystem functions, a lot more is required on landscape epidemiology and the role of green spaces in influencing the pandemic spread. The task requires a dispassionate commitment to ensure the centrality and sanctity of green spaces and issues related to them in forested, rural and urban settings.

In Design with Nature, Ian Mcharg articulated on many thematic areas and also highlighted the prevalence of disease in a non-sylvan urban locale. In a country such as India, a three-pronged strategy, focusing on forested, urban, and rural settings at a macro-landscape level needs to address both the prevailing altered states as well as a roadmap for future. India’s landscapes are no exception to the global phenomenon of transformation. Broadly, anthropogenic and environmental random probability process have resulted in three altered states of landscapes: Severe (urban), Moderate (rural-forest interface with a possibility of moderate rehabilitation, and near normal (protected areas and some forests). The forest environment broadly falls into one or more categories, such as protected areas, community reserves, conservation reserves, reserved forests, protected forests or undemarcated protected forests. The parcels of land contained therein are looked after by a plan of operation emanating from a management plan. Such areas and their links within a landscape are “no go” areas in a true sense, where no tradeoff
is possible. They provide the ecosystem service to society, including maintenance of the prey, predator, pathogen and vector cycles. No compensatory effort worth its name would bring back the character and dynamics of floral and faunal associations inherent in such areas.

The rural locations have their dynamics of their own. The predominant land for agriculture and cash crops have eaten into the habitat of wild animals, leading to man-animal conflicts. This requires redressal at the grassroots level through village level micro-planning and prescribing a gainful portfolio for community stewardship to safeguard nature.


Rajesh Gopal is secretary-general, Global Tiger Forum. Mohnish Kapoor is head, programme and partnerships, Global Tiger Forum. First published in HINDUSTAN TIMES


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