Yellow fever may threaten biophilia in São Paulo city (commentary)

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  • Reconciling biodiversity conservation and urban development is one of the biggest challenges for humanity, considering that by 2030, 60 percent of people globally are expected to live in cities.
  • There are currently numerous forest fragments rooted in an urban matrix. On the one hand, these remnant forests confer many benefits on human society. One the other hand, forests may cause biophobias related to human fear and avoidance of some animals, misconceptions about animals’ risks, and the association of forest with dangerous and unsafe areas.
  • A recent increase of yellow fever cases in highly urbanized cities in Brazil’s Atlantic forest – a tropical hotspot of biodiversity – can threaten the balance between biophilia and biophobia.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Every year since 1993, Fabio de Oliveira Roque, one of the authors of this piece, has returned to his hometown of São Paulo, a big city inside a biodiversity hotspot — Brazil’s Atlantic Forest. As part of his stay, he would always climb a mountain in Jaraguá State Park and stay there for some hours, just contemplating the ocean of buildings and the sparse green areas embedded in it.

But his last holiday in São Paulo was different. Fabio asked his 15-year-old nephew, Gabriel, if he wanted to accompany him to the park, and Gabriel replied: “The park is closed, it is dangerous.”

And it was true. Jaraguá State Park is one of São Paulo’s 23 protected areas that are closed to avoid risk of yellow fever. It previously received more than 500,000 visitors per year.

The closing of a state park in this megalopolis points to a much larger trend that requires serious attention: Reconciling biodiversity conservation and urban development is one of the biggest challenges for humanity, considering that by 2030, 60 percent of people globally are expected to live in cities.

There are currently numerous forest fragments rooted in an urban matrix. On the one hand, these remnant forests confer many benefits on human society, some with cultural aspects, such as urban sacred spots (e.g. sacred monkey forests), and some providing vital services, like mitigating flood risks in big tropical cities like São Paulo. Another benefit they provide is psychological: Getting in touch with biodiversity and experiencing nature after a busy day certainly contributes to human well-being in urban environments, and this feeling of deep affective affiliation with life (biophilia) cannot be replaced by any existing technology, as E.O Wilson points out in his book Biophilia.

One the other hand, forests may cause biophobias related to human fear and avoidance of some animals (e.g. snakes and invertebrates), misconceptions about wildlife risks (e.g. monkeys transmitting yellow fever in southeastern Brazil), and the association of forest with dangerous and unsafe areas.

A recent increase of yellow fever cases in highly urbanized cities in the Atlantic forest — a tropical hotspot of biodiversity – can threaten the balance between biophilia and biophobia. According to the Brazilian Ministry of Health, from July 2017 to January 2018, there were 601 human cases of yellow fever reported, and 130 of those cases were confirmed. Besides humans, other primates are suffering the consequences. Monkeys are being infected and killed by yellow fever virus (453 confirmed) in urban areas, such as parks and zoos.

Urban areas are also the habitat of the infamous yellow fever mosquito, Aedes aegypti, which can transmit the disease from person to person (the fearful urban cycle – not registered in Brazil since 1942). The possibility of an urban yellow fever outbreak is so alarming it led the São Paulo government to shut down many parks and zoos. The misconceptions about the relationship among yellow fever and monkeys leads people to slaughter the primates, including endangered species like the gold lion tamarin — a clear biophobia behavior.

This could be just the tip of the iceberg and may increase people’s phobia to urban forest fragments, with negative effects in the long run for biodiversity conservation in cities. Beside prompt responses to yellow fever control (e.g. human vaccination), we argue that urgent national and international mobilization (e.g. protected area managers, ministries, NGOs) is needed to avoid additional slaughter of primates, a group already highly threatened by other human impacts.

More importantly, cities affected by yellow fever need a strategic action plan to reconnect people and forests, unless people may be pushed back from natural areas, resulting in permanent phobias.

Jaraguá State Park in São Paulo. Photo via Wikimedia Commons, licensed under GNU Free Documentation License.

CITATIONS

• Brazilian Ministry of Health. (2018). Monitoramento do Período Sazonal da Febre Amarela Brasil 2017/2018 – Informe n. 10. Available at: http://portalarquivos2.saude.gov.br/images/pdf/2018/janeiro/25/af-informe-febre-amarela-10-25jan18.pdf [in Portuguese]

• Estrada, A., et al. (2017) Impending extinction crisis of the world’s primates: Why primates matter. Sci. Adv. 3, e1600946. doi:10.1126/sciadv.1600946

• Kean, S. (2016). When will yellow fever strike Brazil again? Monkeys and mosquitoes hold clues. Science. doi:10.1126/science.aao7011

• Kellert, S.R. & Wilson, E.O. (1993). The Biophilia Hypothesis. Island Press.

• United Nations. (2016). The World’s Cities in 2016. Available at: http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/publications/pdf/urbanization/the_worlds_cities_in_2016_data_booklet.pdf

Francisco Valente-Neto and Fabio de Oliveira Roque are researchers with the Instituto de Biociências at the Universidade Federal de Mato Grosso do Sul in Brazil. Francisco is an ecologist interested in how biodiversity is structured in space and time. Fabio is an ecologist and member of the Centre for Tropical Environmental & Sustainability Science (TESS), Australia. His research covers community ecology and conservation.

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This story first appeared on Mongabay

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