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24.12.2020 Feature Article

Stop wildlife trade to prevent future pandemics

Phillip KyeremantengPhillip Kyeremanteng
24.12.2020 LISTEN

To prevent further major outbreaks of novel diseases such as Covid-19, H5N1, SARS and MERS7, Fauna & Flora International (FFI) calls for a halt in all commercial trade in high risk wild taxa from, and within, high risk areas, whilst risks are assessed, targeted policy responses formulated, and the global community works to transform its relationship with nature as a critical investment in the future health of ourselves and our planet.

Most new infectious diseases arise when pathogens transfer from animals into humans. The common – including SARS, MERS7 and Ebola – originate in wildlife. Critically, this is occurring more often due to increased contact between wild animals and people, linked to changes such as agricultural expansion, urbanisation, and the expanding trade in wild animals.

It is known that SARS-CoV-2, which causes Covid-19, was transmitted from a wild intermediary host (the exact species is currently unknown) to a human in a marketplace in Wuhan.

An enormous variety of wild animals are traded globally for meat, traditional medicines, and pets. They are harvested legitimately and illegitimately from the wild, and some are farmed in commercial captive facilities.

They are often transported over long distances, in large numbers, in proximity, in poor health, and from multiple countries of origin. All along this trade chain, from source to end markets, there is potential for diseases to spread between species – including to humans and domestic livestock.

The risk of transfer to humans is greater from certain taxa, particularly mammals and birds. This risk is also higher in tropical areas with high mammal diversity, and where there is fast urban growth, high human density, and rapid land-use changes. The increased movement of people and animals and more complex trade chains also raise the risks.

Millions of the most vulnerable, poor and marginalised people are dependent on hunting wild species for subsistence and income especially in developing countries. Banning markets selling wild meat, or even local-level trade and exchange in wild animals, would impend their food security. It would also risk promoting black-market trade, making it difficult to manage the risks.

The safe and sustainable hunting of fast-reproducing species (such as small ungulates and rodents) for consumption, and very limited trade by local households in the rural tropics who currently depend on wild meat, is possible and does not need to conflict with protecting wildlife. To safeguard local access to this protein source and make sustainability possible, commercial trade – domestic and international – would need to end.

Ultimately, however, to prevent future pandemics, reducing extreme poverty and dependence on biodiversity for food, medicine, income and energy security is an indispensable part of reducing the many human-driven stresses leading to the erosion of biodiversity.

Whilst regulation in many areas and for many species needs drastic improvement, a diverse range of animals, plants and fish are legally harvested from the wild and legally traded around the world.

You may be surprised at the number of animal species harvested from the wild that feature in your daily lives: the tuna in our sandwiches, wild salmon, caviar, venison, wild boar and grouse in upmarket restaurants, coral and ornamental fish in home aquaria, accessories made from crocodile or python skin and pets such as tortoises and lizards. The European Union is the top global importer by value of many wild animal commodities including caviar, reptile skins and live reptiles.

From harvest, processing, transport and marketing, a huge number of people rely on this trade for their livelihoods. And the benefits can also provide incentives to sustainably manage land uses that supports wildlife. Finding alternative funding mechanisms to maintain thriving ecosystems that support human life needs to be a key part of transforming our relationship with nature.

Wildlife trade needs deep restructuring. However, it is important that the social, environmental and economic benefits of trade are also considered in targeted policy responses. This will reduce the likelihood of formerly legal trade being driven ‘underground’ where it is more difficult to address and manage.

Climate change and biodiversity loss are increasing the rate of infectious disease outbreaks, facilitated by agricultural expansion, industrial-scale intensive farming, road building, logging and mining in remote areas. We need healthy ecosystems – for the air we breathe, the healthy soils to grow food, the genetic diversity for crops and livestock, and to provide resilience against climate change. And thriving biodiversity keeps ecosystems healthy – from essential pollinators such as bats through to seed-dispersing primates.

The response to the Covid-19 pandemic shows that massive collective action at scale is possible when governments decide it is necessary. The global community must now show the same determination to protect and restore biodiversity and tackle climate change to ensure the future health of humans, wildlife and our planet.

Written by Philip Kyeremanteng BSc MSc CEnv CSci

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