The world’s wake-up call. Don’t press snooze.
Peter Knights is the founder and CEO of WildAid, an international wildlife conservation organisation. Peter created the first international programme aimed at reducing demand for endangered species products. Peter has been awarded a regional Jefferson Award for public service in honour of his role in achieving California’s ban on shark fins.
COVID-19 has hit humanity like no other recent crisis. Last year, no one knew the virus existed. Now the global outbreak has led to loss of loved ones, extreme economic hardship and tremendous suffering. Many of us are asking, “how did we get here?” and “how can we prevent the next pandemic?” Having worked to end the illegal wildlife trade for more than 30 years, I’ve seen first-hand the dismal and unsafe conditions along the wildlife supply chain. It’s time the world wakes up and we end the dangerous wildlife trade to prevent the next pandemic.
Each year zoonotic diseases are responsible for more than two billion cases of human illness and more than two million human deaths, according to a report from the Zoological Society of London and Hanoi School of Public Health. COVID-19 is just one example of a succession of pathogens infecting people that have come from commercial trade of wild animals for consumption or contact between wild animals and domestic animals. AIDS, SARS, Ebola, avian flu, and swine flu – the list goes on. Experts estimate that out of the 1.6 million potential viruses in mammals and birds, 700,000 could pose a future risk to human health.
The question about the next pandemic has always been when, not if.
In the case of the new coronavirus, two primary theories exist for how SARS-CoV-2 came to be. It either originated in bats and then passed to humans through a vector species, such as pangolins, a known carrier of viruses. Or, it is the result of a recombination between two different viruses that infected the same organism simultaneously. What is clear is that from source to market, conditions inherent to the wildlife supply chain pose a high risk for the emergence and transmission of zoonotic pathogens. To prevent the next zoonotic pandemic, we would be wise to stop the risky consumption of wildlife and #endthetrade.
In 1994, I was in a live animal market in Guangzhou in Southern China, investigating rhino horn trafficking. Wire crates with civets, badgers, owls, rats, snakes, and turtles were stacked precariously on top of each other with food and faeces dropping between the bars. It was then I realized the live animal and bushmeat trade is the perfect recipe for an epidemic. The mixing of species in cramped conditions, that suffer from stress, dehydration, and weakened immune systems, facilitate disease transmission. As one Chinese person described to me, these markets are “a small piece of hell”.
“Wet markets” have offered meat and fish for thousands of years and exist all around the world. Hygiene can be an issue, but it’s the addition of live wild mammals and birds that is of paramount concern. The sheer scale of exploitation and the ability to transport millions of animals from far flung habitats into urban centres means that urbanization and globalization can ignite and spread an infectious disease in a matter of mere days.
Finger pointing, though, is not the answer. The issue cannot be solved by one country or by any individual agency. The solution will rely on political will, and cultural and behavioural change. In some countries, stronger laws and regulations are needed with stiffer penalties reflecting the massive potential damage of these illegal activities. In others, stronger prioritization and training for wildlife law enforcement is required. Everywhere, there is the need for greater public awareness of the risks and reduction in the demand for commercial high-risk bushmeat.
At WildAid, we are using our demand reduction model, which has helped to reduce consumer demand for shark fin, ivory and rhino horn in countries like China, Vietnam and Uganda. In Vietnam, WildAid and local NGO partner, CHANGE, have been working with the government on an intensive month-long effort to provide input that will inform permanent wildlife trade regulations and build broad public support for them. In China, we are building upon our existing campaigns and amplifying government regulations by adding new messaging about pangolins in possible connection with COVID-19. In Africa, we are working to exclude high risk species like bats and pangolins from commercial trade and will soon release a documentary that highlights the hazards of urban bushmeat markets to both humans and wildlife.
And because this is a global crisis that requires global, urgent action, we have joined with the Pangolin Crisis Fund, Global Wildlife Conservation and the Wildlife Conservation Society to implement key conservation strategies, including reducing consumer demand, phasing out supply chains, active monitoring for pathogens, and developing new opportunities for local communities dependent on wildlife consumption.
Our Coalition to End the Trade is inviting conservationists, scientists, policymakers, health professionals and the general public to join in driving a global paradigm shift to prevent future pandemics by signing the coalition’s Declaration to End the Trade at www.endthtrade.com.
As we gradually revert to more normal lifestyles it’s important illegal and risky wildlife trade doesn’t resume business as usual. Protecting the animals protects us all.
It’s time to wake up. It’s time to #endthetrade.
This column appears in ISSUE 13: This is Hvaldimir of Oceanographic Magazine
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