Investigating links between outbreaks of Ebola virus disease and forest fragmentation in West Africa
Washington DC, US
The Environmental Foundation for Africa (EFA) is a Sierra Leone-based nongovernmental organization that has been working since 1992 to facilitate community-led programs for sustainable forest management as a basis for poverty alleviation in Africa.
The ERM Foundation has been partnering with EFA since 2012. EFA approached the ERM Foundation at the height of the Ebola crisis, to investigate suspected links between outbreaks of Ebola virus disease (EVD) and forest fragmentation in West and Central Africa.
I have been working in West Africa for the past ten years and had been following the Ebola outbreak, wondering what I could do to make a difference. When the opportunity arose to get involved in this ERM Foundation project, I jumped at it. Our Geographic Information System (GIS) and biodiversity experts were extremely well-placed to provide support and help raise awareness of this important issue. It has been a pleasure to work with the EFA team and to collaborate with ERM colleagues across North America and Europe.
The results from this original research are potentially significant and suggest that the likelihood of the Ebola virus passing from its wildlife host (frequently hypothesised to be bats) into the human population may increase when there is a specific configuration of forest-fragmentation parameters. Central to the research was an ERM-led GIS modeling exercise that analyzed satellite imagery at the locations of seven specific EVD locations. This provided an understanding of the empirical conditions in which the initial animal-to-human transmission of the Ebola virus took place. In six of the seven cases we studied, EVD emerged where and when forest fragmentation parameters were within a narrow range of values. The report also analysed bats’ response to fragmented forest landscapes, finding that in such conditions it may be more likely for unusual assemblages of species – including bats, other animals and humans – to come into closer and more frequent contact than would normally be the case, potentially in conditions favorable to disease transmission.
In September 2015, a report of the research findings was launched formally by EFA and the ERM Foundation in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, with the support of the United Nations Development Program. The ERM Foundation has since co-funded an EFA-led workshop in Sierra Leone, which brought together regional technical experts to review the report’s findings and start identifying concrete recommendations for post-EVD recovery planning in the three worst affected countries. In conjunction with the Center for International Forestry Research, an enhanced study is slated for publication in a significant scientific journal in the coming year.