Coronavirus and wildlife, can zoonotic diseases decimate the illegal trade in wild animals?

The relationship between the coronavirus and wildlife is complex: while the pandemic may lead to a reduction in the illegal trade in wild animals, it may also encourage it in other respects.

The spread of the coronavirus carries with it the potential of an overall decline in the wildlife trade. Although conclusions concerning the exact origins of the virus are yet to be reached, it’s widely believed that the pathogen first infected humans in a wet market in Wuhan, China, where wildlife was sold to be eaten and used in medicine. Pathogens transmitted from animals to humans are known as zoonotic diseases and while the mutations required for a virus to bridge this species gap are rare, they do occur. The cramped and often unhygienic conditions of wildlife markets pose a major risk for people, with up to 75 per cent of new diseases being zoonotic. This risk may ultimately lead to a reduction in the wildlife trade.

civet cats, wildlife trade, coronavirus
These cat-like mammals known as civet cats are consumed as delicacy in China and have been linked to the outbreak of SARS © Richard Wasserman/Flickr

The effect of zoonotic diseases on the wildlife trade

Most people will have heard of the outbreak of SARS – a virus closely related to SARS-CoV-2, which causes the illness Covi-19 – in 2003. Back then, the Chinese government imposed a ban on the sale of 53 species including civets, the carnivorous mammal linked to the spread of the virus, including the culling of 10,000 of these animals as well as badgers, raccoon dogs, rats and cockroaches. Although the government later lifted the ban to then reinstate it again temporarily, the situation showed that zoonotic diseases, aside from being extremely dangerous to people, have the potential to alter the consumption of wild animals.

It’s precisely because of its dangers that it could decrease. Not only has China permanently banned the trade in wildlife for food, though not for medicinal purposes, “the reported potential links between the emergence of Covid-19 and trade in wildlife could deter some consumers from eating wild animals,” explains Aron White from the UK-based NGO Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). A survey conducted by the WWF in early March in Hong Kong, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam revealed that, out of 4,000 participants, 93 per cent were likely to support governments closing illegal and unregulated wildlife markets and 79 per cent believed that these closures would be at least somewhat effective in preventing epidemics like Covid-19. White adds that “this may be amplified by progressive changes in government policies and public awareness campaigns”.

Read more: How factory farming breeds deadly viruses and epidemics

illegal wildlife trade GT SEZ live pangolin
A caged live pangolin in a market in Asia © EIA ENV

Traditional medicine and the illegal wildlife trade

Despite this, “EIA has already documented wildlife traffickers attempting to exploit the pandemic to promote their supply of illegal products as medical treatments or health tonics,” says White. China and Laos-based sellers have even been using WeChat accounts to share images of a traditional Chinese medicine called Angong Niuhuang Wan used to reduce fever: China’s own National Health Commission recommended the remedy traditionally containing rhino horn as a treatment for coronavirus, together with another one made with captive-bred bear bile.

Read more: Moon bears, a sanctuary to save them from bile farms opens in Laos

“There’s a risk of demand for some products persisting or increasing, particularly wildlife used in traditional medicine, and particularly where government policies are continuing to legitimise and even promote their use,” White points out. To make matters worse, the stop in international tourism may cause severe challenges in countering wildlife trade activities such as monitoring and community engagement, “which are largely funded by tourism”.

Read more: Laos, the ups and downs of the illegal wildlife trade in a Chinese-controlled special economic zone

At this stage it’s important to consider that traditional Chinese medicine offers a vast range of plant and mineral-based treatments, some of which are direct alternatives to ones containing wildlife ingredients. Professor Rosaleen Duffy, Director of the BIOSEC Project, which examines the politics of biodiversity conservation, at the University of Sheffield, says she’s “concerned that currently there’s an intense focus on Chinese wet markets, and Chinese eating habits as ‘the problem’”. She explains that it might be easy to place blame on one group but that the issue goes much deeper and involves the whole of the global economy. To fully address the wildlife trade people everywhere, must re-evaluate their relationship with the natural world.

Read more: Ilaria Capua. To the coronavirus we’re just another host animal, so let’s use our intelligence

Coronavirus and wildlife: the strategies ahead

Commerce in wildlife is the fourth largest illegal trade worldwide. “We also need to be mindful that some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people are dependent on it for their livelihoods,” Duffy explains. The supply and demand of wild animals is a well established mechanism and serious government regulation is required to control it. “A government putting in place unambiguous bans on trade in a given wildlife product (such as elephant ivory) and publicising this ban may in itself deter many consumers from purchasing the item,” White indicates. “Revisions to China’s Wildlife Protection Law offer a timely opportunity to permanently change legal frameworks for the benefit of both biodiversity and human health”.

brent stirton wildlife photographer of the year
Memorial to a species by Brent Stirton, Grand title winner of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2017. Once the most numerous rhino species, black rhinos are now critically endangered due to poaching and the illegal international trade in rhino horn, one of the world’s most corrupt illegal wildlife networks © Brent Stirton/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

“Also crucial are the impacts of effective law enforcement to disrupt wildlife trafficking networks and deter others from getting involved”. In addition, diplomatic channels can be used to encourage individual governments to take action: “the UK government made tackling illegal wildlife trade a key focus of its environmental policy; it convened four high profile conferences and asked other governments to sign up,” Duffy explains.

Aside from government intervention, other stakeholders can help too. Academics, NGOs and the private sector can all contribute to actions such as monitoring, analysing the effectiveness of state intervention and providing alternative livelihoods for those involved in the wildlife trade. Tech, transport and logistic companies can also move towards ensuring “that their platforms or services aren’t used to advertise or traffic wildlife products”. A letter to the World Health Organisation signed by 241 international organisations urges the UN agency to officially state how wildlife markets pose a significant danger to human health, therefore encouraging governments to conclusively ban both wildlife markets and the use of wildlife in traditional medicine.

Wild animals are common in this market
This man goes about his daily business carrying wild animals through a market filled with other wildlife © Putu Sayoga/Getty Images

Individual citizens can also lend a helping hand. “It’s useful to remember that it’s not all about ivory, rhino horn or pangolins as people all over the world are knowingly and unknowingly engaging in the illegal wildlife trade,” Duffy says. For example, she recommends that travellers check the souvenirs and foods they buy to make sure they don’t come from species banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. People may also help by reporting and monitoring locations where the wildlife trade occurs “using smartphones to take photographs in markets to be sent for verification of whether the animals being offered for sale are prohibited or not”, while Duffy also stresses the importance of taking care not to put oneself and others at risk.

A dark storm with a silver lining?

The coronavirus pandemic is one of the biggest challenges facing modern society. It poses a grave threat to global communities on many fronts, from public health to economic instability. It has already led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, a global recession and will likely leave a profound mark on history. Whether part of this can be turned into something positive is yet to be seen but thanks to international efforts to protect both biodiversity and human health it’s possible that a silver lining may ultimately be found.

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