COVID-19 and wildlife conservation in Asia

Many diseases, such as the one resulting from COVID-19, have crossed the barrier from animals to humans, with serious consequences. Together with members of the Society for Conservation Biology – Asia Section, we published a commentary in Trends in Ecology & Evolution where we highlight that epidemics originating from animal hosts are inevitable unless urgent actions to protect the environment and decrease the interface wildlife-domestic animals-humans are taken.

Currently, wildlife trade, degradation of natural habitats, and the interaction and interface between humans and wildlife leads to zoonoses such as coronavirus disease 2019. A shift away from the current practices through enhanced and proactive regulation of trade and reduction in environmental degradation would decrease the risk of zoonoses and benefit environmental conservation. Abbreviations: EIA, Environmental impact assessment. We are grateful to Benjamin Michael Marshall for help with the figure.

In the last thirty years, the majority of human pathogens which have caused substantial damage to human health and economies have originated from wildlife or livestock. Such diseases include Ebola, AIDS and SARS. COVID-19 is among the latest of these zoonotic diseases and resulted in a pandemic that has caused more than a million deaths worldwide.

Two primary factors that facilitate such outbreaks are wildlife trade and loss of natural habitat, both of which increase the frequency and potential for direct contact between humans and wildlife. Animals in wildlife markets are often housed in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions that create the perfect environment for pathogens to jump to humans. In addition, natural habitats are being cleared to meet the growing demands of an increasing human population, which puts livestock and people in closer contact with the wild hosts of potential zoonotic pathogens. Addressing these two factors will help prevent future zoonotic diseases.

In order to protect against future pandemics, we call for governments to establish effective legislation addressing wildlife trade, protection of habitats and reduction of interaction between people, wildlife and livestock.

You can find the final publication here, and a nice press release here.

Frog ladders

While conservation research is the main focus of the lab, getting dirty and applying conservation practices is also important, especially for pilot project.

The Korean landscape is heavily marked by deep water drainage ditches used to flood rice paddies, and these drainage ditches generally turn into death sentence to amphibians that become trapped. This problem has been acknowledged in the past, and some mitigation measure are implemented, but generally not in line with the behaviour of the species, and rarely used.

Escape ramps from drainage ditches, with a dried frog (Rana sp.) on the front right of the image as it did not find the ramps.

This mismatch was repeatedly noted, and recently a new type of escape ladder was trialed, after showing a marked success in the UK. This earlier project was organised in coordination with citizens and generated widespread interest by several environmental groups.

As a result, the lab was involved in providing scientific guidelines to the Hanns Seidel Foundation Korea, local branches of the Korean Federation for Environmental Movement and Goseong County to install frog ladders in Songjeong-Ri, Goseong, to help amphibians escape from drainage ditches. Three types of ladders were trialed, taking into account access by amphibians and water flow disruption so that ditches would not be removed by excavators cleaning the drains.

Frog ladders installed for amphibians to escape water drainage ditches.

Ladders were installed towards rice fields for amphibians migrating towards their breeding habitat to be able to escape, and towards the forest so that migration towards the hibernation habitat would not be blocked. The results of the three type of ladders installed will be compared, and Goseong County pledged to install more of the successful type.

Applied conservation at work! Some press released followed the event, follow these links [1], [2], [3] for more (in Korean).

An individual Pelophylax nigromaculatus (Black-spotted frog) trapped in a water drainage ditch at the site.

New paper: “Catalogue of herpetological specimens of the Ewha Womans University Natural History Museum (EWNHM), Republic of Korea”

Check out our paper “Catalogue of herpetological specimens of the Ewha Womans University Natural History Museum (EWNHM), Republic of Korea”, published today in ZooKeys! The work was in collaboration with Prof. Yikweon Jang from Ewha W. University, and Steven Allain.

Figure 2. Some of the frog specimens deposited in the collection of the EWNHM A Bufo gargarizans (EWNHM-ANIMAL 5288) B Glandirana emeljanovi (EWNHM-ANIMAL 5296) C Bombina orientalis (EWNHM-ANIMAL 5292) D Rana huanrenensis (EWNHM-ANIMAL 6633).

The EWNHM opened as the first natural history museum of the Republic of Korea (S. Korea) in 1969. However, a complete catalogue of its herpetological collection has not been available since, although it holds many specimens of great scientific value. This basically means that the collection was unknown and unavailable to many researchers for years. To further complicate the problem, many specimens had degrading labels, or missing voucher numbers altogether – which make things very difficult if you were to navigate the collection to locate a certain specimen. And there’s yet another confusion. The existing voucher system was in direct conflict with another, unrelated voucher system applied to a public natural history research database.

To get around all these issues, we cataloged the entire herpetological collection. This involved changing degraded labels, updating nomenclature, photographing the specimens, and applying consistent voucher system to all specimens. And now this catalogue can serve as a reference point for the collection!

We’ve put in a lot of effort into this project, and there were some difficulties from time to time. But this work was just a lot of fun all the way, and as Yucheol Shin, the first author put it: “Seriously, spending time in the cool and quiet collection storage room and admiring the gems from the past are some of the best times you can have!” The gems in question include among other some very interesting dicephalic Gloydius saxatilis as well as the oldest collection-preserved Asian plethodontid: Karsenia koreana.

Now that basic cataloging process is complete, more collection-based research lies ahead of us! ✌🏽Full-text here:

Shin Y., Jang Y.,  Allain S. J. R. & Borzée A. (2020).Catalogue of herpetological specimens of the Ewha Womans University Natural History Museum (EWNHM), Republic of Korea. ZooKeys. 965: 103–139. DOI: 10.3897/zookeys.965.52976.

Figure 5. Some of the snake specimens deposited in the collection of the EWNHM A Sibynophis chinen-sis (EWNHM-ANIMAL 6497) B Orientocoluber spinalis (EWNHM-ANIMAL 6500) C Gloydius brevi-caudus (EWNHM-ANIMAL 6505) D Oocatochus rufodorsatus (EWNHM-ANIMAL 6564).
(PDF) Catalogue of herpetological specimens of the Ewha Womans University Natural History Museum (EWNHM), Republic of Korea.

New PhD students

Congratulations to Vishal Kumar Prasad and Johanna Ambu for being accepted to NJFU, and starting their PhD in the lab this month.

While the first semester is going to start online due to the current situation, we hope they will be physically present as soon as possible and start their work on amphibian communication, distribution and abundance.

Good luck to them!


Amphibian trade regulation in the Republic of Korea

New policy recommendation published in collaboration with the Lab of Animal Communication from Ewha Woman’s University!

Research on species conservation provides the base for the subsequent implementation of conservation projects. Similarly, conservation policy recommendations provide a support that can be used by law makers to promote the conservation of species and habitats. Here, we provide a policy recommendation aimed at stopping the proliferation of emerging diseases and invasive species in the Republic of Korea.

Amphibian diseases and invasive amphibian species are both generally introduced through the wildlife trade, either for human consumption or for the pet trade. However, adequate regulations can prevent such introductions.

In the Republic of Korea, the main known threats coming from invasive diseases are Batrachochytrids. While B. dendrobatidis is known to have a sub-lethal impact on local species, the impact of D. salamandrivorans is unknown. In addition, the proliferation of the invasive American bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus) has resulted in the extirpation of some local amphibian populations, the spread of diseases and there are multiple risks of invasion by other species.

The same risks and threats to the ecosystems arise from most amphibian species in the trade, some of which are already found in the wild. While regulations exist for the trade of wildlife in general, they are not directly addressing the amphibian trade, especially not newly traded species. Based on these variables and threats, we recommend a restriction to the amphibian trade in the Republic of Korea.

Screenshot policy recommendation