The Coronavirus Could Finally Kill the Wild Animal Trade
The outbreak may be the push needed to help prevent zoonotic diseases.
Ebola. Anthrax. Bubonic plague. HIV. SARS. Coronavirus. You may not be familiar with the term “zoonotic,” but these nightmarish examples fall into that category. Zoonotic diseases are the kinds that can jump the species barrier, and can be particularly dangerous to humans because our immune systems don’t yet know how to fight them.
The COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, for example, probably originates from wild bats, but it’s not yet clear which creature was the intermediary between them and humans. Confiscated samples of pangolin, a critically endangered mammal hunted for use in traditional Chinese medicine, have tested positive for similar strains. Whether or not the intermediary turns out to be a rare, exotic species or a more mundane one such as pigs, one thing is clear: The greater the variety of animals in the same small space, the more pathways there are for diseases to spread and mutate.
This is alarming because the risk of zoonotic disease is rising exponentially. Three-quarters of new diseases in humans are transmitted from animals. The past century has seen ever-expanding human encroachment into natural habitats, exposing people and livestock to more varieties of wild animal than ever before—and with this contact, any bacteria and viruses they carry.
“The more we hunt wildlife, the more we come in contact with new environments and the more we increase the likelihood of us being exposed to these viruses,” explained Peter Ben Embarek of the World Health Organization’s International Food Safety Authorities Network. “It’s clear that poaching and hunting endangered species has to stop. It’s totally unacceptable. I think everybody in all authorities of the world are in agreement with that.”
This is easier said than done. Wildlife trafficking rakes in up to $26 billion per year, helping to make environmental crime one of the four most profitable illegal industries in the world. Chinese demand drives the trade, especially when it comes to rare animal parts like tiger bone, rhinoceros horn, and pangolin scales, all of which are used in traditional Chinese medicine. Until Chinese President Xi Jinping banned public officials from serving shark fin soup and dishes containing wild animals in 2013, it was de rigueur to serve these exotic meats at lavish banquets in China. (Xi acted not out of ecological concern, but as part of a drive to crack down on the appearance of corruption.) Wet markets offering wild meat remained common in China until being shut in the aftermath of the outbreak, while rich tourists continued to travel to places outside Beijing’s direct control, such as the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone situated on the border of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar (and run by Kings Roman Group, a Hong Kong corporation), where markets openly sell elephant ivory and tiger skins, and critically endangered animals are on the menu. The expense and perceived machismo of such dishes made them particularly attractive to modern China’s culture of conspicuous consumption.
In the past, the popularity of wildlife products made the Chinese government reluctant to clamp down on the trade. Back in 2003, in the wake of the SARS outbreak, Beijing lifted a ban on sales of palm civets and 53 other species after just four months, only to backtrack when another man in Guangdong contracted the virus in December 2003, and order the destruction of 10,000 civet cats, badgers, raccoon dogs, rats, and cockroaches. The trade temporarily became more covert, but over time it has crept back into the open—and while the import and sale of endangered animals from the wild is illegal, sourcing them from breeding farms is not. This time around, Beijing has fast-tracked a blanket ban on breeding and consuming wildlife products, but whether it lasts remains to be seen.
“I think there will be a period of one or two years where the wildlife trade gets suppressed because of [coronavirus], because people are concerned about it, they don’t know whether it’s legal or not—and the risk of disease,” said Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance. “But it will come back, because some of these meals are just so deep in the culture.”
In other words, conservationists have only a small window of time while these fears are still fresh in people’s minds to emphasize the link between the risk of a pandemic and buying and consuming rare wildlife.
If they miss the chance, they will struggle to regain momentum. For decades, environmental campaigners, academics, and policymakers have been at a loss to find the right narrative to end the trade. Highlighting animal cruelty and the destruction of ecosystems resonates with horrified onlookers but has failed to convince actual buyers. “We’ve known about the conservation issues for 50 years. It’s never closed a market,” said Daszak. “The one thing that’s ever closed a market is the emergence of a pandemic: SARS. And now this one.”
Meanwhile, as Vanda Felbab-Brown, author of The Extinction Market, has explained, prohibition alone pushes the trade underground and encourages traffickers to adopt the mindset of smugglers of illicit goods everywhere. As a result, not only do prices rise, but more animals are killed in order to offset the cost of seizures. Fear of prosecution fails to dissuade desperate poachers who need to feed their families in corners of the world where decent jobs are scarce. Legal farming of endangered animals such as tigers spreads confusion among customers about what is and isn’t legal, and is too poorly regulated to mitigate the risk of cross-infection. The civet cats that carried SARS came from farms, not the wild.
A more recent shift in policy has seen the illegal wildlife trade reframed as a serious organized crime phenomenon linked to terrorism financing. This angle attracts international attention and funding but encourages governments to take a military and law-enforcement approach that fails to address the root causes of the trade. As Rosaleen Duffy, a wildlife trafficking expert at Sheffield University, put it: “I don’t see the War on Drugs as having worked at all. So why we think a War on Poachers or a War on the Wildlife Trade will work, I don’t know.”
Ultimately, for as long as there are prospective buyers, the trade will persist. “If there is a demand then the supply will find a way to satisfy that demand,” said Ben Embarek. “It’s not just a matter of banning the trade of wildlife in markets. We also have to convince customers and people going to markets that it’s not appropriate. It’s not a good thing to consume and buy wildlife as food.”
In the long term, the illegal wildlife trade may peter out. Research by EcoHealth Alliance has found that unlike older generations, younger people in China aren’t interested in eating wildlife. The trouble is that we don’t have time to wait around to find out. “I’m sure in 50 years there will be very, very few people in Asia eating wildlife,” said Daszuk. “But this period of 50 years as it disappears is a very dangerous one for the planet.” The other problem is that it may just be that young people don’t have the money or the need for prestige that drives this kind of consumption. But if such dishes can become associated more with pettiness and cruelty than power and success, change might be possible.
So far, as a species, we’ve been lucky. Widespread availability of antibiotics means that, today, even an aggressive and highly contagious bacterial infection such as bubonic plague could be nipped in the bud. Viruses are harder to manage, but to date the most dangerous outbreaks have begun either in countries that are relatively equipped to contain them, such as China, or in places disconnected from major global transport hubs, such as rural Guinea.
It’s only a matter of time, though, until a zoonotic disease emerges that spreads too far and too soon for us to prevent it becoming a global pandemic. The World Health Organization describes this as “Disease X.” Daszak called it “a mathematical certainty.” The coronavirus is looking like a worrying possibility for that, especially after simultaneous outbreaks in Iran, South Korea, and Italy in the past few days.
To be sure, such diseases have emerged and died out in the past, flickering briefly in isolated villages in the jungles or mountains. But that was in a less connected era. After all, an estimated 40 million commercial flights per year help transport emerging diseases to and from every corner of the planet at breakneck speed—and place wealthy, frequent-flier countries at high risk of an outbreak.
“Maybe now’s the time to rethink our relationship with wildlife and leave them in the forests where they belong. Then we won’t get the viruses,” Daszak said. “Bottom line: eating wildlife is bad for your health. That’s the message that’s got to get out.”
Lindsey Kennedy is a journalist and documentary filmmaker covering stories related to development, global security, and abuses of civil and human rights. Twitter: @LindsAKennedy