How the hard lesson of Covid could help gorillas

Poppy pictured here in August 2015 was the last living mountain gorilla made famous by Dian Fossey in Gorillas in the Mist.

Tara Stoinski is the president, CEO and chief scientific officer of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.

(CNN)The sudden and deadly appearance of Covid-19 has shaken our nations around the world to their core. Governments were caught by surprise, unprepared to battle a pandemic within their own borders. But here's the thing: We in the conservation community weren't surprised at all.

For years we've been warning that human destruction of wild ecosystems is upsetting nature's delicate balance and putting wildlife -- and humans -- at risk, while leading to dangerous and potentially irreversible climate change. Sadly, it's humanity's mistreatment of nature that has brought the devastation that we now see as a result of Covid-19.
Scientists are working to contain the spread of the virus, and will likely find a cure or a vaccine. But what then? The global pandemic has brought the world to its collective knees, and when we all can finally get up, we'll need to make some big changes in the way we live on this planet, our only home.
My career in science has been focused on studying and conserving gorillas. Our efforts in Rwanda to protect the "gorillas in the mist," made famous by our founder and namesake Dian Fossey, have contributed to a rare conservation success story. Dian thought mountain gorillas would be extinct by the year 2000, but instead, they are coming back from the brink, with their numbers slowly but steadily growing over the past three decades.
With just over 1,000 mountain gorillas remaining on the planet, they remain at risk and are a conservation dependent species. However, their story clearly shows that through effective governmental leadership, on-the-ground partnership, and community-based initiatives to improve quality of life for people living nearby, we can change the tide for a species on the brink of extinction -- and for the planet.
In addition to our field operations in Rwanda, we work to conserve critically endangered Grauer's gorillas in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Unlike their cousin, the mountain gorilla, Grauer's numbers are decreasing rapidly. By 2015, an estimated 77% of Grauer's gorillas were lost in two decades, primarily as a result of poaching tied to the often illegal trade in conflict minerals used in small electronics, like cellular phones. These gorillas' population plummeted from 16,900 individuals to just approximately 3,800, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species. What happens if gorillas disappear from this complex ecosystem?
Gorillas inhabit the Congo basin, the second largest tropical rainforest in the world. It stretches across six countries, from the DRC in the east all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. At the Fossey Fund, we are working with local communities to protect 1,300 square kilometers of this forest and its inhabitants. We need the forests of the Congo basin and other tropical areas to remain intact and healthy -- not just for wildlife, but for humanity's sake. They serve as the "lungs" of our planet, by taking in carbon dioxide (tropical forests absorb roughly 14% of human caused carbon emissions) and releasing oxygen. However, recent studies show the Congo basin forests are losing their ability to absorb carbon, likely a result of decreased growth from increasing drought and heat. To put it simply, climate change is now affecting our best natural defense against climate change.
This makes gorillas, and the thousands of other species that live in these forests, even more important. They play a critical role in maintaining the health of these ecosystems. Think of gorillas as gardeners -- they spread seeds by eating, distribute fertilizer through defecating, and help shape plant communities through their foraging and nest building behaviors.