by Leo Bottrill, Founder and CEO of MapHubs
When COVID-19 panic finally set in Washington DC last week, I had flashbacks to living in northern Vietnam in 2003.
Living on the fringes of the SARS outbreak
Between 2001 and 2004, I worked in Bai Tu Long, a new national park that extended up Vietnam’s coast to southern China — the epicenter of the 2003 SARS outbreak. Like most of Vietnam’s protected areas at the time, illegal hunting in the park was out of control. Fueled by poverty, corruption, and the increasingly ‘sophisticated’ tastes of Vietnam and China’s nouveau riche, the wildlife trade had eradicated much of Bai Tu Long’s wildlife.
If I wanted to see what little remained of the park’s wildlife, I would go to the back room of my local restaurant and find civets stacked on top of monitor lizards, next to bamboo rats. All were alive and ready to be slaughtered on site for paying customers. Pangolins — another alleged COVID-19 vector — would often be stuffed into large bottles of ruou (rice wine) and openly sold and along roadside rest stops — souvenirs for holidaying Hanoians heading home from Ha Long Bay.
When the SARS outbreak hit and fear of transmission was rampant, I remember feeling very nervous. I would take the hydrofoil back to Ha Long surrounded by southern Chinese tourists, some wearing cotton masks, others openly coughing and spitting in the narrow passenger cabin. I was sure I was going to get it.
The Wildlife Trade
SARS never became the global pandemic that we currently face with COVID-19, but the origins are all too familiar. Studies have linked SARS to civets cross infected with bats — a popular delicacy in southern China and across Southeast Asia. After Bai Tu Long, I spent a further two years in Vietnam working on wildlife trade issues. The illegal trade was rampant around a World Heritage Site where I worked, so I lead an investigation into how endangered primates were being hunted to near extinction to feed demand for monkey balm — an arthritis medicine prescribed by “quacks”. The park authority I worked with, however, were less concerned about public health risks and more concerned that my research would jeopardize their UNESCO status.
During my time in Vietnam, the SARS outbreak and its wildlife trade origins had no discernible impact on local or national efforts to stamp out the wildlife trade. Conservationists were left without anything like the financial resources or more critically public support required to address a complex environmental and social problem. It was no small irony then that between 2004–2010, The US government granted more than $400 million to Vietnam to fight another zoonotic virus — HIV/AIDS. But in the wake of SARS, efforts to fight the wildlife trade received little boost funding.
What can I do from my apartment in Washington DC?
Like pretty much everybody, I am confined to my apartment, facing an uncertain future. But a catastrophe like COVID-19 focuses the mind. Kris Carle, MapHubs Co-Founder, and I thought about how our forest monitoring technology could play some small part in supporting efforts to monitor a critical part of the virus supply chain — the forest.
The virus supply chain
Like the origins of a palm oil kernel or a cocoa bean — two commodities that we are well acquainted with — coronaviruses have often started their long tangled journey from primeval forests to wet markets such as the one in Wuhan where COVID-19 was alleged to have originated. Vector species such as pangolins and bats are caught by hunters in remote forested regions, trafficked through various middlemen and then sold as a commodity to wealthy, urban consumers.
Forest + access = virus risk
Zoonotic viruses such as COVID-19 come into contact with people when we encroach upon their natural habitat. The further we push into the last remaining patches of primeval forest, the more likely we will encounter new zoonotic viruses. The hunters that I observed would travel for days to catch their quarry but their journey was greatly aided by roads and trails cut by loggers. Roads provide access to these previously inaccessible regions, making controlling hunting much harder. If you build it, they will come indeed.
Protecting intact forest
Roadless or intact forest is the good stuff — remote, rich in biodiversity, and accessible to only the hardiest of hunters. They are also areas that we now more than ever need to be closed from the wildlife trade. In our profession, they are called Intact Forest Landscapes (IFL):
“an unbroken expanse of natural ecosystems within the zone of current forest extent, showing no signs of significant human activity and large enough that all native biodiversity, including viable populations of wide-ranging species, could be maintained.” http://www.intactforests.org/concept.html
Monitoring intact forest at scale
Intact forest covers enormous areas. Indonesia’s IFL area is bigger (32,432 km2) than the Belgium (30,689 km2). While IFL maps are readily available on sites like GlobalForestWatch, it’s not easy to separate risks to them from all the other noise. We wanted a way to systematically monitor IFL and find the largest alerts in the last month. This a first step towards an early warning system for risk hotspots.
Enter forest report
Step 1: Break IFL into bite sized pieces
Using a grid system developed by Uber, we took large, complex areas of IFL and monitor them in smaller equally sized hexagon-shaped areas.
We then broke up millions of hectares of forest into 5,000 hectare hexagons that intersect IFL. We selected 5 countries with ongoing deforestation in their forest frontiers: Indonesia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Colombia, Laos, and Liberia.
Step 2: Monitor with Forest Report
Next, we loaded thousands of IFL hexagons into Forest Report — our deforestation monitoring software. Forest Report analyzes thousands of hexagons of forest and finds the ones that have had the most deforestation in the past month. This helps us visualize where to take a closer look.
We further reviewed areas using land cover maps, property rights data, and satellite imagery. Once we found our cases, Forest Report turned the data into a digestible report, which we can share with concerned parties.
Plywood, fire, and cocaine: what we learned
Our preliminary results illustrate that forest frontiers remain under siege. All three of our top ranked places are in remote regions, characterized by a heady mixture of poverty, corruption, and violence that provides fertile terrain for the illegal wildlife trade. They are also some of the most biodiversity rich places on earth, rich in rare and endemic species, as well as viruses known and those yet to be discovered.
Case 1: Papua, Indonesia
Papua is Indonesia’s remotest and most unstable province. It also holds the country’s largest remaining blocks of intact forest, sections of which are being rapidly cleared for oil palm, fiber and other commodities. This has lead to intense and often violent conflicts with local indigenous communities.
The top ranked hexagon we found appears to fall within a timber concession in Nabire regency. The company in question has had repeated conflicts with local communities over land rights. They have allegedly been using elite police forces to protect their logging operations and in 2014, were accused of operating in the regency without a valid permit. Sinar Wijaya, the parent company, claim to operate under Forest Stewardship Council standards and primarily produce plywood.
Case 2: Equateur, Democratic Republic of the Congo
In 2018, Equateur, DRC — the site of our next hexagon — was the scene of yet another outbreak of ebola — a zoonotic disease that was initially identified in neighboring Mongala province in 1976.
For rural communities in Equateur, hunting provides both a source of food and increasingly a source of cash for growing regional bushmeat markets. Bushmeat was a vital source of food during DRC’s decades of war and remains so today.
Like much of DRC, farmers in Equateur practice slash and burn agriculture. A recent study by researchers at the University of Maryland, highlighted how slash and burn agriculture drove 80% of the deforestation in the Congo Basin, clearing forest the size of Bangladesh between 2000–2014.
The hexagon reveals that in just the past month, farmers had burned a large patch of primary forest extending over 10km into the forest frontier.
Case 3 - Mapiripán Colombia
Mapiripán, Colombia is another region with a sad and violent recent history. Ravaged by the drug wars, Mapiripán is entering a more stable period, potentially leading to greater prosperity but new threats from palm oil, cattle ranching as well as old foes in the coca industry.
Due to their illicit nature, coca farms are often planted in remote forest regions. Satellite images reveal small farms cut into the forest frontier. Further investigation is needed but illegal cattle ranches and coca farms are prime suspects.
Many leads to follow
Even sitting isolated in our apartments in Washington DC, this new approach has already given us strong leads. We know the places where forest frontiers are being opened, we know the causes, and even the actors involved. The next step is to tailor our system to regional and national contexts and target specific viral, biodiversity, and cultural risks. We want to support conservation and virus research institutions to identify these risks, specifically those posed by the wildlife trade, and provide regular monitoring to those working on the ground.
Forest monitoring alone is sadly not going to solve this horrendous COVID-19 crisis, but it can help us stop the next one. Protecting intact forests will also further benefit biodiversity, our climate, and the many threatened indigenous communities that reside in the world’s intact forest.
We are all now victims of the wildlife trade
Back when I was investigating the illegal primate trade in central Vietnam, I arrived at a hunter’s house on the fringes of a national park. I was greeted by his wife and newborn who told me he was out. She was terrified. I was a foreigner in her house asking her about her husband’s illegal activities. I looked around their humble home with its thatched roof, mud floor, and few meager possessions. I did not blame her husband for hunting. He had no other choice, and it was an injustice that the poorest and most desperate person in the wildlife supply chain would ultimately be the one paying price. Not the traders, not the consumers, not government officials who turned a blind eye, just him and his family. Well we are all paying the price now, and we must act.
If you are interested in supporting a small business monitoring forests, drop me at email@example.com. And if you want to help organizations combating the illegal wildlife trade here are some good, practical organizations to support:
Wildlife Conservation Society (wcs.org)
Environmental Investigation Agency (https://eia-global.org/)
Fauna and Flora International (https://www.fauna-flora.org/)
See the data
View the automated report from Forest Report or download the PDF