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COVID-19: The view from Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust

By Dr Lesley Dickie, Chief Executive Officer, Durrell , 22nd May 2020

What else would there be to write about other than COVID-19, the zoonotic disease sweeping the planet? It has had a profound impact on Durrell. Everywhere there are Durrell team members, we have been in lockdown.

For Durrell, it has meant closing our gates at Jersey Zoo for the first time in our 61-year history, which was very difficult. However, the safety and welfare of our visitors, animals and staff was our top priority, so we had no other option.

We were closed for 7 weeks, and just recently we were given permission to re-open, with many precautionary measures in place. Those include restricting entry numbers, pre-booked entry times, handwashing, face-mask precautions and social distancing. It’s a start, at least, and the reopening has been very warmly welcomed by the Jersey community.

However, there is still a significant financial impact on Durrell due to the initial closure of the zoo and the subsequent restrictions in place that affect other fundraising activities and events.

There is impact on how we care for our animals, too. While there is no definitive evidence that apes, such as our gorillas and orang-utans, can contract COVID-19, we do know that they can be affected with potentially fatal consequences by other human coronaviruses, and therefore it would seem likely that COVID could be transmitted to our apes. The case of the tiger infected by COVID at the Bronx zoo highlights the ability of viruses to jump species barriers, the exact reason we find ourselves in this situation. I will discuss that further below.

However, what have we done in response and what are the likely impacts? Unlike many other jobs, zookeepers cannot take their work home. We cannot just switch off the lights and mothball the zoo. We still have over 1200 animals that we care for every single day, some of them amongst the rarest on Earth. We are taking precautions, such as splitting all our keeper teams into different epidemiological units not at the zoo at the same time, which both lessens the risk of potentially spreading the disease and additionally protects the numbers of staff we have to work with the animals. We have a number of ex-zookeepers on staff, myself included, who  would be able to step in if required, after brushing up on skills. We have redeployed members of our catering team, who normally would have been catering for our visitors, to assist the keepers with food preparation.  Our fantastic volunteers often do food prep, but as many of them are 65 plus, we asked them to stop coming in to protect their health and to shield older members of our community. We look forward to welcoming them all back again.

At our conservation ‘breeding centres’ such as in Madagascar (pochard ducks, rere turtles, ploughshare tortoises), India (pygmy hogs) and Mauritius (tortoises and critically endangered plants), we still need care givers. They face the same challenges we are experiencing in the UK, but often with heightened issues. For example, our specialist duck pellets for the rarest duck in the world, the Madagascan pochard, are shipped from the UK, which is no longer possible, so we must find alternative sources. Our teams are resilient and are solving these problems as we go.

We are also finding ways to help the larger community. In India, head of our pygmy hog programme Parag Deka saw that the local forest guards and their families were not receiving any information about protecting themselves from COVID infection. He took it upon himself to run training courses on hygiene and social distancing. In Madagascar, Richard Lewis, head of our programmes in the country, has become the British Embassy Warden for the capital city of Antananarivo after the UK government ordered the UK ambassador to leave the country. Richard is now tasked with assisting British nationals in Madagascar where required. Elsewhere in Madagascar, we are working with our partners to change some of the work we were undertaking about reproductive health in rural communities to information and training related to COVID. Imagine what it is like for rural communities in a developing country with already extremely limited health care – who face cerebral malaria, cholera and even plague, on a regular basis – to face COVID as well. Here on Jersey, we have offered the two ventilators we have at the zoo (having made alternative arrangements with other equipment for the animals) back to the island’s hospital if required; we have made available materials, equipment and reagents from our labs to help with testing, swabs, PPE and so on; and we have offered the government our glamping site free of charge if any of the pods are needed for emergency housing of vulnerable people during this crisis. I am proud of the way our teams have been doing their best to both get on with their jobs, whether working at home or not, and assist others where they can.

COVID-19 will likely be with us permanently into the future, like other coronaviruses. Zoonotic diseases (where the pathogen has originated in a non-human animal and then jumped to a human) account for more than 70 per cent of all emergent diseases. SARs, MERS, Zika and now COVID have all emerged as new diseases in less than two decades, all zoonotic, all potentially fatal to humans. We have, of course, faced large pandemics in the past. However, what is different now is the rate of the emergence of these new diseases – and there are some very clear reasons why. Put simply, it is the way we are treating our planet and the other animals that live here. Wild animals are reservoirs of potentially fatal disease in humans, but if they are living in undisturbed, suitable and abundant habitat then they pose little risk. By destroying their habitats, by illegally trading them, by stressing their immune systems during that process, and then bringing them more and more into contact with us, in, for example, wildlife markets, we are greatly exacerbating the pandemic risk. This is further aggravated by climate change forcing animals to move or by creating more stress on their systems. In addition, large-scale industrial agriculture heightens the risk by putting millions of domestic animals into cramped conditions, under stress and in close quarters with humans. We are unfortunately receiving a very sharp lesson from Mother Nature, but we ignore it at our peril. I hope that when we get through this initial shock it will highlight that protection of wild places and wild animals is not some luxury, not a nice to have, but vital to our own future. That climate change will have a real impact on lives beyond rising sea levels. That poor animal welfare should not be allowed to continue. Will we heed this lesson, if not for the Earth, then for our own future?

Dr Lesley Dickie became Chief Executive Officer of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust in 2016, launching their new nine-year strategy, ‘Rewilding our World’ in 2017.

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