How the global wildlife trade threatens human health as well as endangered species
Updated: May 4, 2021
The year 2020 will be remembered as the year when a virus stopped the whole world and took hundreds of thousands of human lives with it. The COVID-19 pandemic has been causing suffering and death all over the world and a cascade of deeply detrimental economic, political, social, and other consequences. COVID-19 is caused by a coronavirus novel to humans, but coronaviruses in general are common in people as well as in animals. Many past pandemics were caused by zoonotic diseases that originated in animals and spread to humans, including SARS and MERS, which were both caused by coronaviruses. During the last 40 years, the number of emerging infectious disease outbreaks has more than tripled every decade; two thirds of these epidemics have originated in animals, especially wildlife.
Roadside merchant selling wildlife including live pangolins and a dead anomalure. Photo by Sylvain Gatti.
Wildlife consumption, including for food, medicine, or other reasons, has been a frequent vehicle for zoonotic diseases that create epidemics or pandemics. The global trade in wildlife increases the probability of novel infectious diseases. The World Health Organization has identified human interaction with and consumption of wildlife as contributing to the human contraction and spread of Ebola and other viruses. Bats and pangolins have been proposed as possible hosts of the COVID-19 coronavirus before it emerged in humans. How people first contracted COVID-19 is not known, but early reports have speculated that this coronavirus may have passed to humans through a Chinese market selling wildlife for human consumption.
Although the legal trade in pangolins was banned in 2017, Chinese clinics and hospitals are allowed to use pangolin scales for medicinal purposes. Sadly, pangolins have the unenviable distinction of being the most illegally traded animal in the world, with more than a million individuals being killed for trade just in the last decade.
Deforestation in Ghana, West Africa. Photo by Nico Arcilla.
The global wildlife trade is valued at $20 billion annually, including pangolin scales that may fetch $1000 per kilo. Unfortunately, the rates of deforestation and wildlife trade in many countries are higher now than ever, enabling novel contacts between wildlife and humans that inherently carry a high risk of disease. Ongoing deforestation, especially in the species-rich tropics, increasingly enables people to invade previously remote wildlife habitats and is a main avenue by which zoonotic diseases may emerge and spread.
The COVID-19 crisis exposes our vulnerability and that of the other species with which we share this world and provides an impetus to reconsider our consumption and destruction of so much of the world’s wildlife and wild places. Outbreaks of new zoonotic diseases such as the COVID-19 pandemic were and remain predictable. By doing more to protect nature from unsustainable exploitation, we can lessen the risk of emergence of dangerous new diseases while protecting endangered species from extinction. Banning the global wildlife trade will mitigate the risk of future pandemics and reduce the rate of extinctions. We thus support the call by 339 animal welfare and conservation organizations to urge the World Health Organization to release a formal position statement advising governments to ban wildlife markets and shut down the commercial wildlife trade. Such a statement would encourage increased protection of nature from invasion and destruction while lessening human exposure to novel diseases and rendering pandemics less likely. Protecting wildlife and wild places from unsustainable exploitation thus benefits us all.
Poachers with guns and hunting dogs using a logging road to enter previously inaccessible rain forest. Photo by Nico Arcilla.