Wildlife Crossings

Wildlife Crossings
News Updates
In June, the House of Representatives included dedicated funding in the INVEST in America Act (HR2) to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions. Renee Callahan, Senior Policy Officer for our Partner, the Center for Large Landscape Conservation (CLLC), noted that wildlife-vehicle collisions cost over $8 billion a year but that wildlife crossing structures have been shown to reduce collisions by as much as 97 percent. A Senate bill (S2302) also includes $250 million for wildlife crossing construction.
At the same time, the Road Ecology Center at the University of California-Davis has released a report on the lower death tolls for large wildlife during traffic reductions caused by COVID-19 stay-at-home orders in California, Idaho and Maine as follows.
State Average # Large Wildlife Killed daily from 2015-2019 Average # Large Wildlife Killed daily in 2020 post-stay home orders % Reduction in 2020
CA 8.4 6.6 21%
ID 8.7 5.4 38%
ME 15.2 8.4 45%

Sustainable Fisheries?

Sustainable Fisheries?
June 30, 2020
By Andrew Rowan
The total global catch of wild fish increased from 31 million metric tons in 1950 to a high of 130 million metric tons in 1996 before falling back to 109 million metric tons in 2010. However, from 1950 onwards, 366 of 1,519 fisheries collapsed (defined as a 90 percent reduction in stock) with overfishing being a major cause of many of the collapses. Climate variation, often in the guise of El Nino events, was also a very important factor driving large fluctuations in fish stocks. Despite major advances in the scientific understanding of the variation in global fish stocks and the development of sophisticated analytical tools to guide decisions about how to manage a sustainable fishery, the number of fishery collapses has been stable over time, indicating no overall improvement in fishery management.
While the collapse of the North Atlantic cod fishery may be one of the best-known examples of the non-sustainable management of a fishery, different fisheries have collapsed all over the world and most fisheries are considered to be fully exploited. The tuna fishery for the main species of tuna – giant Bluefin, Bigeye, Yellowfin, Skipjack, and Albacore – is certainly fully exploited today. According to a recent paper in Fisheries Research that compiled a comprehensive and harmonized global data set of global tuna catches by area from 1950 onwards, the total weight of tuna landed annually has increased tenfold to over 6 million metric tons a year. The image displays tuna catches for three different time periods: 1950-54, 1980-84 and 2012-16, and shows clearly how tuna fishing now encompasses most of the oceans of the globe (an estimated 55-90 percent of total ocean area). Almost half the tuna now being landed are skipjack tuna, with yellowfin making up a further one-quarter.
Image copied from Fisheries Research, Vol 221, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fishres.2019.105379
An earlier publication from 2011 estimated the trends in adult tuna biomass from 1930 up to 2010. The adult biomass of southern Bluefin declined by 95 percent from 1930 to 2010. The adult biomass of the “tropical” tunas (Skipjack, Yellowfin, and Bigeye) declined by approximately 60 percent since 1970. Given that the major species of tuna currently account for $42 billion annually, or over one-quarter of the global seafood trade, the long-term future of tuna is a very important factor in global trade and food security.
The North Atlantic cod fishery collapsed very suddenly around 1990 and has still not shown much sign of recovery despite the moratorium on the cod fishery declared by the Canadian government in 1992. Before the collapse, the fishery’s managers ignored scientific data and set catch quotas that were too high. The fishery increased its take of younger and younger fish (older females produce far more surviving young) and, eventually, the inevitable happened. Looking at the annual tuna landings, the declining age of the tuna being caught, and the declining in overall tuna biomass, one cannot help but think back to Yogi Berra’s famous quote – “It looks like déjà vu all over again.”

Cat Conflicts: Conservationists and Protectionists Remain at Odds but the Conflict Might be Ameliorating

Cat Conflicts: Conservationists and Protectionists Remain at Odds but the Conflict Might be Ameliorating
June 30, 2020
by John Hadidian, Ph.D. and Andrew Rowan, D.Phil.
An early relationship between humans and cats is supported by hard evidence from a burial on Cyprus that dates to 9500 BP. Cats were never native to that Mediterranean island, so the occurrence of a young cat within a human burial, while not evidence of taming, is suggestive of some affinity. Certainly, by 4500 BP cats had begun to be idolized in Egypt, beginning the well-documented history in which cats have been alternately loved and damned, protected and persecuted, or viewed as either beloved pets or hated pests. Such is the history of the human-cat relationship. Now we have “Cat Wars,” the contemporary casting of the domestic cat as an environmental demon responsible for driving vulnerable species on islands extinct and as a wildlife plague elsewhere. The authors of Cat Wars call for cat control by “any means necessary.” This statement is representative of the current conflict over cats which has led to many acrid exchanges between environmental conservationists and cat advocates.
The arguments have spilled over from scientific publications to the popular press in articles with titles such as “The Evil of the Outdoor Cat” and “Apocalypse Meow.” The irony here is that both sides in the conflict (conservationists and protectionists) seek the same endpoint: fewer cats outdoors, whether for the good of wildlife or the good of cats or both.
Currently the major themes being argued seem to revolve on two issues: how many cats are there, and how can their numbers, where needed, be controlled? Here, we share a few thoughts about cat demographics and impacts on wildlife based on our recent review of this contentious issue: “Cat Demographics & Impact on Wildlife in the USA: Facts and Values” (see Journal of Applied Animal Ethics Research, 2020, Volume 2, pages 7-37, however, the full article is behind a pay wall).
In the United States, the issue of how many wild animals are killed by owned and unowned cats has been debated for more than 100 years. Within the last two decades, however, the volume has increased significantly and globalized to encompass a voiced concern about the status of vulnerable wildlife on islands and even continents (e.g. Australasia). To be clear, these concerns can be warranted, as feral cats on islands and in Australia and New Zealand have been documented as having negative impacts on vulnerable native species. Outdoor cats, therefore, add considerably to the usual perils wild animals face. Accordingly, we do not argue that outdoor cats not be managed, but we do propose that any management be justified, effective and humane.
This is where the need for good science comes in. As we have argued at greater length in the published article, developing effective management solutions will be infinitely more productive and simpler if the conservation and animal welfare communities could cooperate. We need to determine much more carefully how many cats there are in the different habitats they occupy. Once we have reasonably accurate estimates of cat population demographics in the habitat of concern, then we can move on to create effective management programs. Researchers in Australia have taken the first good steps in making such determinations at a national level, resulting in earlier guestimates of as many as 12 million cats living feral lives in that country being corrected by better approximation that estimates this figure at 1.6 to 5.6 million depending on the season (the higher number is estimated for the rainy season in Australia). In the United States, the claim that there are 80 million (or more) outdoor cats has almost become dogma, leading to commensurate claims of impacts to wildlife and corresponding clarion calls to address this environmental catastrophe (we speculate that the actual figure may be half that number). Clearly, we need to proceed with the same rigor as in Australia to produce better estimates of outdoor cat numbers that will give us a solid platform on which to build responsible policies.
The good news is that such an effort is well underway. The DC Cat Count represents a collaboration of conservationists and protectionists in a three-year project to estimate the true number of cats living as feral, as owned outdoor, as owned indoor, and as shelter populations in the nation’s capital district. The project employs an array of contemporary data-collection and analytical techniques, including surveys of households, photographing free-roaming cats in city alleys and parks, counting cats along transect lines, and tracking cats surrendered to the animal shelter. These surveys will document the lives of all the urban cats in the District of Columbia. From this database, an accurate estimate of the number of cats will permit the development and impact monitoring of proposed intervention strategies. The data will also provide for public education initiatives and permit city agencies to produce a replicable model that other cities can adopt on a cost-effective basis. This is how cooperation between groups and agencies can be advanced for the good of people, cats, and wildlife.

Companion Animals in a Time of COVID-19-Andrew Rowan June 2020 – Pres. Ltr.

Companion Animals in a Time of COVID-19

LETTER FROM THE PRESIDENT, ANDREW ROWAN, JUNE 2020

As we continue to struggle with the current Covid-19 pandemic, it appears that there has been an uptick across the world in the demand for companion animals. In the early phases of the pandemic, there was some concern that our companion animals might be a possible source of infection but, as the infographic from the International Companion Animal Management Coalition indicates, there is very little risk from our pets. There are also reasons, discussed by Professor Alan Kazdin of Yale University in an earlier WBI blog post, why people might be seeking to bring companion animals into their homes at this stressful time.
In the United States, there has been a significant increase in the number of shelter animals being fostered while the number of animals entering shelters fell by almost 50 percent in the early phases of the country’s response to the pandemic. Some shelters in regions hard hit by the pandemic had no animals left for households looking to adopt or foster. At the same time, the demand for puppies being sold by pet stores has also increased and the pet supply industry has been regarded as recession-proof, as the chart below demonstrates. During the recessions of 2001 and 2008-09, spending on pets continued to grow without any noticeable dip. This is not just a North American phenomenon. Demand for pets has been strong in other parts of the world, and humane services have been encouraged. For example, India declared the feeding of street dogs (who lost an important source of food when restaurants and food stalls were shut down) an essential service leading to the development of emergency feeding programs across the country.
Now, thanks to weekly reports from PetPoint (a division of PetHealth, a North American pet health insurance and shelter software company), we can track how the pandemic has affected North American shelters in almost real time. PetPoint has been providing monthly reports of shelter intakes and outcomes among the shelters and rescues using their software (around 20 percent of total intake and outcomes) for ten years. Now, during the Covid-19 outbreak, they have been posting weekly reports. The charts below track the intake and fostering numbers for 2019 and 2020.
As with our understanding of the spread of Covid-19, it is likely that it will take time for us to develop a more detailed picture of the increased entry of companion animals into people’s homes during the pandemic. We can expect to see an uptick in cases of separation anxiety among companion animals when family members head back to school and work. In the meantime, let us applaud PetPoint’s initiative in providing reports of shelter intakes and outcomes on a weekly basis so that we can develop a more granular view of what is happening. North American shelters may have lower intake and increased fostering, but they will also likely have lower staffing levels and possibly reduced funding as donations (and fees) diminish.

The Reaktion Animal Series

The Reaktion Animal Series
By Andrew Rowan
Early this century, independent scholar Jonathan Burt, author of the Reaktion book Animals in Film, persuaded the publisher to produce a series of books on specific animals that would combine a broad mix of human-animal interactions and feature each animal’s role in the arts and literature, in the sciences, in religion, and in myth and folklore.
One reason I have always been intrigued by the series was because two scholars, Marion (Ronnie) Copeland and Boria Sax, with whom I interacted as editor of Anthrozoös, were the authors of two of its first four books, Cockroach and Crow. Burt has also authored one of the volumes, Rat. The series now includes almost 100 volumes. The latest, Human, by Charlotte Sleigh and Amanda Rees, is due to appear in July of this year.
The series has been a huge success, with books on specific birds (Owl, Crow and Falcon) as well as the expected Cat and Dog being among the most popular. Crow, the favorite of Reaktion’s Publicity/Rights Director Maria Kilcoyne, was a particular success in China, where it was printed on black paper with silver type and illustrations.
The mixture of biology, literature and symbolism has proved to be very engaging. This mirrors an experience I had at Tufts where the most popular seminar that the Center for Animals held featured three talks dealing with eagle biology, eagles in art, and the anthropology and symbolism of eagles. Animals are indeed rich organizing entities as we consider the ways in which humans and animals interact and our different reactions to specific animals (e.g. cockroach or dolphin – both subjects in the Reaktion series).
In the specific case of Dolphin, the book is organized into six chapters dealing with zoology and physiology (remarkable), the different types of dolphin (a wide range), the dolphin in history and mythology (very broad reach), dolphin intelligence and behavior (fascinating), threats to dolphins (numerous) and dolphins in popular culture (think Flipper and Keiko). The book is beautifully illustrated with photographs of dolphins and images of dolphins in art and literature. The series’ attention to images is entirely appropriate given Burt’s interest in animals in art and film.
The series – or at least a selection of volumes – is a must-have for anybody interested in human-animal interactions.

Karuna for Corona- Feeding the Homeless Dogs

Karuna for Corona- Feeding the Homeless Dogs
by Andrew Rowan
On March 24, the Indian government ordered a national 21-day lockdown as part of its response to the global Covid-19 pandemic. The lockdown has been extended several times and is now projected to last until June 30. This precaution has resulted in significant hardship for the people of India, especially the poor. But it has also adversely affected India’s street dogs, who mostly rely on leftover food from eateries and food put out onto the streets by good Samaritans. (There is a widespread belief that Indian street dogs survive on rubbish, but several recent studies have demonstrated that there are too few calories in street rubbish to support many street animals.) During the lockdown, eateries were closed and members of the public were initially discouraged from feeding street dogs. The dogs began to starve.
Fortunately, the Indian government recognized the problem and declared that feeding street animals was an essential service. Indian animal organizations and advocates have stepped up to the challenge. One such organization is the Blue Cross of India (BCI). Under the direction of board member Tyag Krishnamurthy, BCI started ramping up an emergency feeding operation in late March and, from the middle of April, was providing food to around 3,000 animals a day in Chennai, through a program entitled Karuna for Corona. Karuna means mercy or compassion in Sanskrit.
BCI has been operating with limited staff during the lockdown and has had to rely mostly on volunteers to prepare and deliver the food to the animals. In addition, a number of businesses in Chennai have stepped up to help, including food service staff who have prepared large quantities of food for distribution (see a video documenting this effort). The feeding effort is now nearing 100,000 meals distributed. At its peak, BCI could call on a group of 100-150 citizen feeders who distributed the food to the street animals every day. Some individuals distributed almost 10,000 meals in April and May.
In this regard, the top volunteer was a 25-year-old sales executive for a Chennai company, Vignesh Sukumaran. He has been feeding and rescuing stray animals for several years, ever since he saw an injured street animal. He became aware of the BCI Karuna project via a WhatsApp group and ended up feeding 300-350 animals daily during the lockdown. He has a goal of opening an animal shelter for abandoned, sick and disabled dogs.
On most days, the demand has outstripped the available food, but volunteers were advised to alternate the places where food was placed and to be frugal. The need has diminished since the easing of the lockdown in mid-May, though BCI continues to feed street animals in non-residential areas that have still not been opened up. Check this Facebook post for more photos of the program.
(Note: BCI was also the place to first propose sterilization of street animals [or ABC – Animal Birth Control] to manage dog populations humanely.)

Pets and Coronavirus: An Update

Pets and Coronavirus: An Update
by Andrew Rowan
In the last WellBeing News (Issue 2:4), we ran a short item on pets and the coronavirus. We would like to draw readers’ attention to an excellent new review of all the studies to date that have looked at the potential for pets to catch the coronavirus and pass it to their human guardians. The review, “Infected not infectious,” was produced by the International Companion Animal Management Coalition (ICAM) and provides summaries of the available studies on pets and coronavirus as of May 14, as well as a nifty graphic showing the numbers of humans, dogs and cats that have been reported as having been infected by the coronavirus.
Graph showing the numbers of humans, dogs and cats that have been reported as having been infected by the coronavirus.

Shifting Baselines: Understanding the True Extent of Wildlife Decline

Shifting Baselines: Understanding the True Extent of Wildlife Decline
May 30, 2020
By Andrew Rowan
Over the past few years, news stories describing the decline in global wildlife have generally referenced the Living Planet Index (LPI), which is based on methodology developed by the World Wildlife Fund and the Zoological Society of London. The LPI indicates that wildlife populations have declined by 60% from 1970 through 2014. The LPI does not estimate the extent of the wildlife decline that occurred before 1970.
In 1995, Daniel Pauly, a fisheries scientist in Vancouver, Canada, published a landmark paper, “Anecdotes and the shifting baseline syndrome of fisheries,” in which he notes that fisheries scientists sometimes failed to identify the correct “baseline” population (or how abundant a fish species was before human exploitation), which affected their estimates about a particular fishery’s sustainable harvest. As a result, long-term declines in wildlife populations become difficult to identify, since each generation redefines a new baseline for what is “natural.”
This concept has been widely discussed by marine and fisheries scientists but, as Sumaila and Pauly note in a chapter entitled “The ‘March of Folly’ in Global Fisheries” in a 2011 book on Shifting Baselines, global fishery policies have largely ignored the lessons of shifted baselines. The cod fishery off the eastern seaboard of Canada and New England is a classic example of a policy “folly.” The accompanying chart shows the proportion of cod landed in Labrador and Newfoundland from 1850 through 2010, and the inset shows the recruitment of young cod into the adult population.
From 1850 through to the 1960s, 150-250,000 tonnes of cod were landed every year by the primarily small-scale inshore fishery. The dramatic increase in the 1960s was due to foreign deep-sea trawlers. Canada imposed a 200-mile exclusion zone, but the foreign trawlers were then succeeded by Canadian ships. Recruitment of young fish plummeted and, by the beginning of the 21st century, the cod fishery was no more. It has still not recovered even though Canada has just increased the allowable catch by 30% – to 12,350 tonnes!.
While the “shifting baselines” syndrome is less evident when discussing land animals, each generation still tends to base its understanding of what is “natural” on its experiences when young. The following anecdote is a tiny snapshot of declining populations of yellow-nosed albatross nesting on Nightingale Island in the south Atlantic.
Tristan Yellow-Nosed Albatross
Nightingale is one of four islands that constitute the Tristan archipelago. Tristan, where 250 people live, is the only island in the archipelago that is inhabited and is considered one of the most remote human communities in the world. The nearest city is Cape Town, South Africa, over 1,500 miles and a 6-day boat trip away. Despite its remoteness, two series of photographs taken 66 years apart depicting the nests of the Yellow-nosed Albatross on Nightingale document a decline in albatross populations. The first photograph was taken in early November 1949 by Bertus Rowan on a trip to Nightingale. It shows hundreds of “mollies” (albatross) nesting on the island in what the locals referred to as Molly Pond 2.
The second photograph (taken almost precisely 66 years later, in November 2015 and showing the same nesting area from the same perspective) has very few albatross nests scattered across the “pond.”
Tristan Yellow-Nosed Albatross
Nightingale has never been inhabited by humans and has, so far, not suffered an invasion of rats, mice or other creatures that often travel with humans. Therefore, the decline in nesting albatross must be related to some other factor. Albatross in the southern oceans are particularly affected by long-line fishing, in which a single line of thousands of baited hooks stretching up to 100 kilometers in length is dragged behind fishing vessels to catch tuna and other open-ocean fish. According to Bird Life International, around 100,000 albatross a year are caught on these hooks and drown.
Human activities have contributed to declines in wildlife populations for centuries – not just the past 40 or 50 years. While recent reports of declining wildlife numbers are important to acknowledge these changes, we must constantly guard ourselves against viewing the state of the world 25 or 50 years ago as its “natural” condition. In fact, the history is far longer.

Global Dog Populations – Andrew Rowan May 2020 – Pres. Ltr.

Global Dog Populations

LETTER FROM THE PRESIDENT, ANDREW ROWAN, MAY 2020

In human health management, we generally must know the size of the problem before we can manage it successfully. This is also true of the management of animals such as dogs and cats. This letter will address what we know about the number of dogs on the planet.
Dog on beach
Ray Coppinger, a world authority on dog behavior, started my investigations into global dog numbers at least 25 years ago when he asked me a simple question: How many dogs are there? At the time, we estimated that there were at least 400 million dogs, but this number has turned out to be far too low. In 2013, Matthew Gompper at the University of Missouri estimated there were around one billion domestic dogs, and his publication started my investigation of the issue in earnest.
I now agree with Gompper that there may be close to one billion domestic dogs globally, but this does not tell us where or how those dogs live. I have become disenchanted with metrics that measure dogs per square kilometer or some other unit of area. Dogs are not spread out evenly across the landscape – far from it – and are mostly clustered around humans. Therefore, a measure that compares the number of dogs to the number of humans is, in my opinion, a far more relevant and valuable way to estimate dog numbers. For several years now I have been using the measure of dogs per 1,000 humans, and I can report that dog populations in different regions and countries vary from around 1-2 per 1,000 people (on the Arabian peninsula) to as high as 800 per 1,000 humans (in rural communities in Chile).
This is a huge range, and we have very little insight into why dog numbers fluctuate so widely. It seems pretty obvious why there should be so few dogs in the Arabian Peninsula (Muslim attitudes to dogs tend to be negative), but why would Sweden have 80 dogs per 1,000 people compared to 140 in the UK and 240 in the USA? Or why would there be so few dogs in the New England states (around 110-140 per 1,000 people) and so many in some Rocky Mountain states (400 per 1,000 people in Montana)? These discrepancies are especially intriguing because these values have been stable for the past 30 to 40 years.
Fairly recently, a few colleagues and I began looking at the effect of human density on relative dog numbers. It has become evident that there is a strong inverse relationship between log human density and the relative number of dogs. A strong inverse density relationship has been found (R2 for the various trend lines ranges from 0.4 to 0.7). Such an inverse relationship has been documented for dog populations in US states, on the island of Mauritius, in the Indian state of Haryana, in Mumbai, in and around Rawalpindi in Pakistan and in Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul, even though the relative number of dogs varies from 10 to 400 dogs per 1,000 people and the human density varies from a few people per square kilometer to over 40,000 per square kilometer.
The inverse correlation of relative dog numbers with log human density offers an opportunity to develop reasonably reliable predictive models for dog populations in different countries.
We also need to determine whether the dogs are pets, strays or feral animals. WellBeing International is now classifying dogs as either Private dogs (mostly pets), whose movements are subject to some control, or Street dogs, whose movements are not controlled.
A child petting a dog
There will be overlap between Private dogs that are allowed to roam for some part of the day and the Street dog population, but using this two-phase classification is a simple way to describe dog populations around the world.
Several authors (e.g. Coppinger) have argued that Street dogs vastly outnumber Private dogs, but WBI has found that this is not the case. Private dogs now outnumber street dogs (perhaps by a 3:2 margin) and there has been a steady global drift – though not necessarily purposely – towards moving dogs off the streets and into homes. For example, in the USA in the 1960s it was estimated that around 25% of all dogs were Street dogs, but today Street dogs are very rare and are mostly found in inner-city or rural communities. The level of control of dogs in the USA has increased substantially since the 1960s, measured as the proportion of Private dogs entering shelters annually (from around 30% in the early 1970s to 5% today).
Other important metrics to consider when looking at global dog populations are overall per capita income and the rural/urban divide. In most High-Income Countries (HIC), Private dogs constitute the vast majority of the population (90-95% or more). In contrast, in Low-Income Countries (LIC) and Lower Middle-Income Countries (LMIC) nearly all rural dogs are Street dogs. In LIC and LMIC, a percentage of dogs in urban cities (maybe 30-60%) will be Street dogs. Thus, one can begin to draw a reasonably accurate picture of the global dog population by simply concentrating on country income levels and the proportion of the population classified as rural. Table 1 below provides estimated dog numbers for different regions of the world. The regional estimates have been derived from multiple surveys of both Private and Street dog populations. Note that Street dogs are in the majority where the rural proportion of the population is above 50%.
Global Dog Population table
The regional dog estimates indicate that there are approximately 800 million dogs existing today, of which around 300 million are Street dogs. In other words, the majority of the dogs are Private dogs living as pets or guard dogs, and Street dogs compose only around 35-40% of the total – not 85% as some have claimed. Another common misconception is that Street dogs are all unowned strays. Some are certainly strays, but many are claimed to be “owned” by one household or another. Admittedly, these “owned” Street dogs are not treated in the same way as “owned” Private dogs, but they do receive some care.
Dog populations across the world are slowly shifting from the streets to the exercise of greater control by individual households. At the same time, the number of small animal veterinary clinics is exploding. For example, Malaysia’s first small animal clinic opened in 1980 but today there are around 500. In Jaipur, India, there were only a couple of small animal clinics at the turn of the century but today there are more than ten in the city. The number of small animal veterinary clinics is likely an indirect measure of the level of control of dog populations exercised by individual households.  See also Global Dog Campaign.

Spillover

Spillover. Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. 2012. W. W. Norton & Company, New York (nominated a notable Book of the Year by the New York Times Book Review)
by David Quammen
Reviewed by Andrew Rowan
This book by science writer and journalist David Quammen about pandemic threats to humans arising from animal pathogens (zoonotic) was first published in 2012, eight years before the current coronavirus pandemic that appears to come from bats, possibly with a contribution from pangolins. Spending quite a bit of time these days reading books, I decided that it was time to read Spillover. I also have harbored a hope to someday meet David Quammen since we were both privileged to be able to spend time studying at Oxford. So, I bought a Kindle version of Spillover and started to read – all 522 pages of text plus an additional 68 pages of acknowledgments, notes, references, and index.
It is a gripping and sobering read. It is gripping because Quammen takes you seamlessly through many different human adventures with different zoonotic bugs (those that come from animals to infect humans) introducing all sorts of interesting characters along the way. He also introduces one to extra-ordinary treks through different landscapes that he has made, glossing over the heat, the pests, the suspect foods and the negotiations with many different bureaucrats so that his journey through Darkest Africa seemed little more dangerous than a stroll through Central Park in New York. I admired his sangfroid in the face of all the threats of his exotic trips (“don’t look up because you might get a mouthful or eyeful of bat urine” was one warning by a guide), but I also envied his ability to explain complex science in plain English and entertainingly!
The book is sobering because of the subject. Throughout the 522 pages, one comes across numerous references to the Next Big One (NBO) – namely, a new, emergent zoonotic bug that has the ability to pass easily from human to human, that does so before most victims feel ill, and that has the capacity to kill a significant proportion of those it infects. Today, a pathogen that infects half the human race and kills one percent of those it infects would end up killing 38 million people – almost as many as the estimated death toll from the 1918-1919 Spanish flu. Covid19 appears to have this sort of potential.
Nonetheless, I ended the book feeling hopeful. Quammen interviews many scientists who are studying such emergent pathogens and who are providing insight and ideas about how humans might prevent or mitigate the NBO. In the case of Covid19, there are now over 70 new vaccine initiatives and at least three are undergoing trials in humans. This is a remarkable record for a new infectious agent that was unknown just a few months ago. Now we can just hope that our governments, both national and local, can act with sufficient speed and insight and that they will pay appropriate attention to those who know whereof they speak.