A moral responsibility

01 May 2012

We need to help teach China to protect its environment, says Professor Marcel Klaassen.

The world has a moral responsibility to help China learn how to preserve its environment, says Deakin University’s Professor Marcel Klaassen.

“We are sending them our raw materials, and that is great for Australia at the moment,” said Professor Klaassen who heads up Deakin’s Centre for Integrative Ecology (CIE).

“It would also be great if we could export our expertise in conservation.

“It has taken us many years in the West to learn the importance of environmental stewardship, maintaining wildlife and biodiversity.

“That is important knowledge that we can and should be passing on.

“That means not just going over there to tell the Chinese what we think they should be doing, but helping to educate their own scientists.”

Professor Klaassen has already taken what he hopes will be the first steps in helping China address some of the environmental issues caused by its rapid growth.

“I have made contacts with ecologists at various institutions in China,” he said.

“One of these is Professor Cao Lei from the prestigious University of Science and Technology in Hefei.

“The CEI hosted her for two months last year.

“I have also begun participating in a wetland ecology course at that university, giving lectures and undertaking field work with them.

“That was very encouraging. It was completely new information to them and they soaked it up like sponges.

“We have also embarked on an exchange of the most talented ecology students, the first arriving to Deakin shortly, working on the impact of environmental changes in China on population dynamics and health of migratory waterbirds.

“While doing her fieldwork in China she will analyse her data and write on her thesis in Australia.”

Professor Klaassen is one of the world’s leading avian biologists and much of his breakthrough research looks at the migratory birds that travel from the southern hemisphere to the north and back.

This is revealing a constant deterioration in their habitats in Asia.

“A number of species at now at risk,” he said.

“What the decline in the bird population is also showing is that the whole environment is changing.

“It is not just climate change that we need to be worrying about, but global change.

“So this is really important information for a number of reasons.

“The birds can provide us with a lot of information about what is happening to our environment.

“Also they can help us to prevent the spread of emerging infectious diseases, future pandemics like avian influenza.
“For me it is all about prevention, which is a much cheaper option than cure.”

Nobel Laureate Professor Peter Doherty in a visit to the Australian Animal Health Laboratories in Geelong last year said that a future pandemic doesn’t just worry research scientists and the public health people.

"It also worries the business people and the politicians and the reason it worries them is because we know that the SARS outbreak, which in the end only killed about 800 people, it caused $50 billion in economic damage because it shut down hotels, it shut down tourism and the airlines," Professor Doherty said.

Zoonoses, disease coming from other animals, are responsible for 70% of all Emerging Infectious Diseases (EIDs), such as SARS. Again 70% of these originate from wildlife.

In addition to SARS, other notable examples include HIV/AIDS, Ebola and Hendra as well as both Avian and Swine Influenza.

Whereas EID often originate from wildlife, there is also a reciprocal risk to wildlife itself involved.

Changes in land use, human and livestock distribution and climate all result in a redistribution of pathogens and hosts and the emergence of new contact zones.

At the same time due to environmental degradation, the immune system of wildlife may be impaired and wildlife may be more prone to disease and become a more important vector for EID.

Since moving to Geelong from The Netherlands, Professor Klaassen has also become an active participant in the Victorian Waders Study Group, volunteers who help track the flights of migratory birds like the ruddy turnstone.

“This is one of the great things about Australia I have found since coming here, these wonderful volunteers who spend days out in the wetlands helping us with our research,” he said.

“I know many of them share my concerns about what we should be doing to assist the Chinese with preserving their environment.

“Some of them have been to China and have seen what is happening and know what impact it can have.”

The ruddy turnstone, for instance, flies each year from Australia to Siberia in Russia.

En route many of these birds stop land on tidal flats in Asia to refuel.

“We can’t say to the Chinese you can’t have an economy and a lifestyle like we have in the West,” Professor Klaassen said.

“But we can say to them, be smarter than us; learn from all the mistakes we have made, because it doesn’t just sense from an environmental point of view, but an economic one as well." 

Professor Marcel Klaassen It's not just climate change we need to be worrying about, but global change, says Professor Marcel Klaassen.

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