Society and nature

Social-ecological biodiversity conservation can reduce the risk of pandemics

The UN Biodiversity Council warns that pandemics will increase, should nature and biodiversity not be better protected. However, scientists from ISOE – Institute for Social-Ecological Research are pointing out that the preservation of biodiversity cannot be guaranteed with blanket decrees. For biodiversity protection measures to have a preventive effect against future pandemics, they must take into account regional and local characteristics as well as local knowledge and the needs of the local population. These recommendations for a social-ecological shaping approach have now been published in the journal Global Sustainability.

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Palm oil plantation at rainforest edge
Palm oil plantation at rainforest edge. Foto: Richard Carey –

The vast majority of emerging infectious diseases originate from human contact with wildlife and from the ever-increasing use of natural resources. Livestock, agriculture and mining are destroying pristine nature, savannahs and forests around the world. As a result of penetrating pristine habitats, humans and their livestock are increasingly coming into contact with naturally occurring pathogens. The transmission of these pathogens from animals to humans, so-called zoonoses and the outbreak of pandemics such as COVID-19 are thus becoming more likely. Both the legal and illegal wildlife trade accelerate this dynamic. In their latest report, scientists from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) are therefore urgently warning against the progression of environmental degradation as a cause of zoonoses. To reduce the risk of future pandemics, they are calling for stricter measures to preserve biodiversity and protect wildlife.

Better understanding relationships between nature and society

“Globally applicable conservation laws to preserve biodiversity are more important than ever, but they do not automatically solve the problem of increasing wildlife contacts and zoonoses,” says biodiversity expert Florian Dirk Schneider, lead author of the article that has just been published in the journal Global Sustainability. In order to develop effective and, above all, fair measures for biodiversity conservation as a prevention of zoonoses, he says, attention should focus on specific regional and local conditions because the way and extent to which people use nature can vary greatly from region to region and can have different reasons. “Social and ecological conditions influence needs and lifestyles, which can in turn have far-reaching effects on the extent to which natural resources are being used,” says Schneider. For example, the expansion of land used for agriculture or poaching can be driven by economic pressures and incentives and sometimes appear to be without alternative for the local population. The same applies to the market conditions of livestock farming in industrialized countries, which leave little room for health considerations. Schneider emphasizes, “We need to better understand these dynamics of use and the relationships between society and nature.”

Blanket regulations on biodiversity conservation are not sufficient

Rather than rigidly imposing blanket regulations from the top, the ISOE authors recommend understanding existing uses and practices in more detail and incorporating them into decisions for biodiversity conservation measures. Marion Mehring, co-author and head of the research unit Biodiversity and People at ISOE points out that “it is imperative for different values, traditions, and social norms that shape societal interaction with nature in various communities within regions of both the southern and northern hemispheres and in urban and rural habitats to be understood and incorporated into common solutions for biodiversity conservation”. Otherwise, she says, there is a risk that measures taken will not adequately reflect the needs of the local population and thus will either not be accepted or will fall short of fulfilling their needs. 

Complex dynamics of nature use, biodiversity and zoonoses

In order to develop biodiversity conservation as an effective prevention against future zoonoses it is the diverse local knowledge of the population as well as institutions and applied technologies on-site that are essential, the ISOE authors are stating. Mehring emphasizes that “more than ever, efforts to conserve biodiversity need to be strengthened in an inter- and transdisciplinary way. We can only break down the dynamics in the interplay of nature use, biodiversity, and the emergence of zoonotic diseases if we understand the diverse social-ecological interactions and interdependencies that underlie these dynamics. And here, a purely scientific view is not sufficient.” For the analysis and sustainable alignment of the dynamics found in local biodiversity use, the authors therefore describe in their publication an integrated social-ecological research approach that explicitly addresses the relationships and interactions of biodiversity and society.

New practices of co-existence between nature and society

In their article, the authors propose six social-ecological principles of shaping biodiversity conservation as an effective prevention against zoonoses. In response to current crises, these are intended to provide guidelines for researchers and policy makers in describing and identifying solutions for co-existence with nature. “If we consistently consider the social-ecological principles of shaping when developing biodiversity conservation measures, we can reduce the risk of future pandemics simultaneously,” says Mehring. What’s more, “the principles of shaping provide a basis for sustainable solutions regarding direct contact with nature locally, but always with a view to global challenges.”


Florian D. Schneider, Denise M. Matias, Stefanie Burkhart, Lukas Drees, Thomas Fickel, Diana Hummel, Stefan Liehr, Engelbert Schramm, and Marion Mehring (2021): Biodiversity conservation as infectious disease prevention: why a social-ecological perspective is essential. Global Sustainability. Cambridge University Press, 4, p. e13. doi: 10.1017/sus.2021.11 

Scientific contact:

Dr. Marion Mehring
Head of Research Unit Biodiversity and People
Phone +49 69 7076919-39

Dr. Florian Dirk Schneider
Tel. +49 69 7076919-71

Press contact:

Melanie Neugart
Phone +49 69 7076919-51