Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark
Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark

Do sick animals lead to sick humans?

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By Rachael Bale, ANIMALS Executive Editor

One year ago, a landmark global report announced a shocking finding: One millionspecies are at risk of extinction. Over the past 50 years, it found, populations of land-based species have fallen 40 percent, freshwater species more than 80 percent, and marine species 35 percent. The evidence was overwhelming: It’s our fault.

It can be hard to contemplate putting energy into environmental protection when global COVID-19 cases have surpassed 3.7 million. But the pandemic is a result of humankind’s destruction of the planet. “Rampant deforestation, uncontrolled expansion of agriculture, intensive farming, mining and infrastructure development, as well as the exploitation of wild species have created a ‘perfect storm’ for the spillover of diseases from wildlife to people,” the reports’ authors wrote a few weeks ago. (Pictured above, an endangered baby Bornean orangutan with her adoptive mother.)

The authors issue a stark warning: Future pandemics will happen more frequently, will kill more people, and will cause greater economic damage unless we start recognizing the inextricable links between human health and the health of the planet, its ecosystems, and its nonhuman living creatures. This is not a radical concept. The framework of OneHealth, recognized by the CDC, the World Health Organization, and governments and organizations around the world, does just that.

It’s easy to think—especially for those of us who live in urban areas—that ecosystems are something separate from us. But the coronavirus crisis has shown that even people in the most advanced, developed cities around the world are vulnerable when ecosystems are degraded.

The bottom line: When nature is sick, we’re sick.

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Your Instagram photo of the day

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Playing around: Photographer Katie Orlinsky says anyone with a sibling can probably relate to this image of young polar bears near the Inupiat village of Kaktovik, Alaska. “Every fall after the community’s annual subsistence hunt of bowhead whales, polar bears arrive to feed off the whale carcass scraps and bones,” Orlinsky says. “Climate change has affected the migration and diet of polar bears, which have grown increasingly hungry as melting sea ice impairs their ability to hunt seals on the ice sheet.” Meanwhile, scavenging so close to town brings its own set of challenges to both polar bears and the people of Kaktovik. With a steady stream of tourists and scientists coming to view and study the polar bears year after year, Orlinsky says the bears grow increasingly accustomed to interaction with humans—“the most dangerous predator on the planet.”

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Today in a minute

The next animal-to-human disease: The legal international animal trade is as much of a risk for spreading zoonotic diseases as the illegal trade, says a former wildlife inspector for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. While public conversation has been focused on illegal trade, "the diseases that simultaneously hitchhike into the country on legally imported wildlife continue to go largely unnoticed,"Jonathan Kolby writes for Nat Geo.

Rhino exodus
: Fewer tourists because of the pandemic have emboldened poachers and prompted Botswana to move critically endangered black rhinos from its vast, swampy Okavango Delta. The move follows a surge of rhino killings in March that left at least six animals dead, writes Nat Geo’s Dina Fine Maron. Across Africa, there are an estimated 20,000 white rhinos but only about 4,500 black rhinos.

Animal takeover: Researchers are documenting the return of wildlife to populated areas where residents are staying inside because of the pandemic. They’re also checking for similarities to other depopulated areas, such as a region of Japan after a nuclear plant disaster or a part of Ukraine after Chernobyl. Now that the pandemic has people holed up at home, “nature has issued a sigh of relief,” radioecologist Tom Hinton, co-author of a new study, tells Nat Geo.

Mosquito vs. mosquito: If the EPA has its way, genetically engineered mosquitoes will be flying around the Florida Keys and Houston to try to limit the spread of mosquito-borne illnesses such as Zika, dengue, and yellow fever.Bloomberg Law reports that the agency has granted permission to release the new mosquitoes, which carry a gene that kills female offspring, which transmit the diseases.

Lonely eels: A Japanese aquarium is urging the public to FaceTime its spotted garden eels, which had been accustomed to streams of people before the pandemic forced the facility’s closure. The effort for the animals, which includes setting up giant video screens around the tank to see human faces who video call, is intended to get the eels accustomed to people again—so they don’t not burrow themselves in the sand at the sight of a human, NBC News reports. “We hope that our spotted garden eels will start remembering human beings," the aquarium said.

The big takeaway

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The truth about ‘murder hornets’: Entomologist Chris Looney doesn’t love the nickname for the Asian giant hornets, which landed in Washington State in late 2019 and have caused a media frenzy. But he says the phrase has its upside. “I just hope the sensational ‘murder hornet’ coverage helps us understand our ecosystems a little better,” Looney tells Nat Geo’s Douglas Main. The voracious insects decimate honeybee colonies—and already fatally sting from 30 to 50 people a year in Japan. Looney says the United States has only a few years to stop the invasive wasps in the Pacific Northwest, or they could spread out of control.

Subscriber exclusive: Five good things that insects do

In a few words

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The last glimpse

Where lions began: Scientists have created complete genomes of 20 individual lions, including two 30,000-year-old cave lions, to better figure out the origins, migrations, and possible relations between today’s lions in Africa and Asia and predecessors in caves. The study’s results support the idea that lions radiated out of Africa in a series of migrations, somewhat analogous to humans, writes Nat Geo’s Douglas Main. The report also adds urgency to conserving lions and protecting against future losses. For example, only 400 lions live today in Western Africa. (Pictured above, a lion moving through tall grass at sunrise in Tanzania.)

Subscriber exclusive: When people and lions collide, both suffer

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, with photo selections by Jen Tse and Eslah Attar. Do you have an idea or a link? We’d love to hear from you at . And thanks for reading.