The world is in the grip of a pandemic, and you’re probably reading this from home right now. Where did coronavirus come from, and what’s it got to do with the trade in wild animals?
The rise of COVID-19
For many, it seemed as though the coronavirus pandemic sprung up out of nowhere. But it didn’t just arise spontaneously. It was transferred from an animal to a human host. Such animal-borne diseases – called zoonoses – are either traced back to wild animals (e.g. AIDS, Ebola and Marburg virus) or to farmed livestock (e.g. BSE, Nipah virus and swine flu).
According to the Chinese government, the jump of COVID-19 took place in a ‘wet market’ in the city of Wuhan. Wet markets are typically open-air sites selling fresh meat and seafood (often butchered and trimmed on-site) as well as other produce. They exist throughout China and other parts of the world. And they’ve given rise to novel human diseases before. In 2003, the emergence of SARS – a respiratory disease that affected 26 countries and resulted in more than 8000 cases – was traced to the same kind of market that is thought to have sparked the COVID-19 outbreak. And in 1997, the rise of bird flu in Hong Kong was blamed squarely on wet poultry markets.
Wet markets in China have evolved into outlets not just for traditional livestock, but for a whole slew of wild animals as well – sometimes sold dead, sometimes alive. Consequently, as well as blood and entrails, these environments contain animal waste such as faeces and urine, helping to create the unsanitary conditions in which diseases thrive.
View our full Wildlife Trade gallery here.
So if wet markets are such a threat to public health, why not just ban them?
To an outside observer, it might seem like an obvious solution. Indeed, China responded to the outbreak of COVID-19 by shutting down wet markets and permanently banning the sale of wild animals for food (except for fish and seafood). Unfortunately, the problem is more complex than that. During the SARS outbreak, when wet markets were temporarily closed, they were immediately replaced by (potentially) more dangerous black markets. It’s also important to note that wet markets provide an essential source of food for millions of people, many of whom are poor. However, the fact remains that as long as they stay open, they continue to provide potential channels for disease transmission.
The permanent ban on buying and selling wild animals for food in China, is therefore a step in the right direction.
“This pandemic stemmed from animal use. Many other illnesses come from animal use, too. How many reasons do we need to put an end to it? We are killing an estimated 80 billion land animals every year.
– Jo-Anne McArthur, NPL photographer and founder of WeAnimals Media
Animal diseases can come from anywhere, not just China…
Chinese markets are particularly effective launch pads for emerging zoonotic disease like SARS and COVID-19, because the country contains the world’s largest human population. But zoonotic diseases can spill over anywhere. Take MERS, or Middle East respiratory syndrome: a disease caused by another member of the coronavirus family. First identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012, it’s now been linked to camels. According to the World Health Organisation, the origins of the virus are not fully understood. The best evidence suggests that bats transmitted it to camels sometime in the distant past.
In Malaysia, factory farming of pigs caused the transmission of Nipah virus to humans in 1999.
And Africa, too, has more than its fair share of zoonotic diseases: Zika, West Nile virus, Lassa fever and – most famously – Ebola. The ongoing outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo has killed over 2,000 people since it began in 2018. The disease passes to humans through close contact with the blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of infected animals such as fruit bats, chimpanzees, gorillas, monkeys, forest antelope or porcupines. In Africa, the consumption of wild species – or ‘bushmeat’ – is commonplace. Village communities hunt it for subsistence, while poachers transport it for sale in urban markets as a luxury item. In both cases, it is often slaughtered in less than hygienic conditions.
Click here for our story on how African bats have been linked – somewhat unfairly – to the Ebola epidemic, and the rise of other human diseases.
View our full Wildlife Trade gallery here.
The meat we consume is not the whole story. In China, animals traded on market stands are not always for direct consumption. Sometimes, people buy them to cure their ailments instead. Take pangolins, for example. In some Chinese and Vietnamese cultures, their meat is considered a delicacy, but the real demand is for their scales. They sell by the tonne to treat a wide variety of complaints, from epilepsy and arthritis to fever and impotence. Although there is no scientific evidence that pangolin scales have special curative properties (they’re made of keratin, just like human fingernails), the demand has grown to the point where all species of pangolin are now threatened with extinction. These animals are not just delicacies to be enjoyed at the dinner table. They’re part of a cultural tradition that dates back thousands of years.
Pangolins are now recognised as the world’s most trafficked animals (more in our story here) but they’re just the tip of the iceberg. It’s no secret that many of the species sought after for traditional Chinese medicine also happen to be critically endangered. The demand for tiger bone wine, rhino horn and bear bile continues to drive illegal poaching. Snakes, lizards and seahorses are big business too. The list goes on.
Crucially, it’s not just the animals themselves that are victims. The sad irony is that their body parts, believed to have pharmaceutical value, actually carry negative health consequences for the people that consume them. Traditional medicine is another major avenue of animal/human contact. In other words, it increases the chances of a disease like COVID-19 spilling over.
View our full Wildlife Trade gallery here.
The Cost of Development
The risk of zoonotic diseases jumping from animals to humans has always been there, but the emergence of these threats has increased in recent decades.
Researchers say that’s partly due to our increasing tendency to exploit natural habitats – to deforest, to mine, to build roads – therefore reducing natural barriers between animals and humans. Moreover, habitat loss causes displacement of species, forcing them to crowd together into remaining patches and increasing our chances of exposure even more.
But the question we have to ask ourselves is where does the real threat lie? In our increased exposure to the natural environment? Or in how we choose to treat it?
Writing for the New York Times, David Quammen, author of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Pandemic, says: “We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.”
Making matters worse, rapid urbanisation and population growth create the ideal breeding ground for emerging diseases. More than half of the world’s population lives in densely-packed cities, increasingly connected by cars, planes and trains. The emergence of a new zoonosis might only begin with one or two people, but it soon spreads.
What can we do?
At the time of writing, there are over 766,000 reported cases of COVID-19 across more than 150 countries, including 36,000 deaths worldwide. The impact on the global economy is massive. Planes are grounded. Hundreds of millions of children are not going to school. People are staying at home. Livelihoods are at stake.
In the short term, the attention of world governments is understandably on containing the spread of COVID-19 and preventing as many deaths as possible. For now, looking after each other means keeping our distance, even from friends and family. But when the dust settles, the world needs to come back together in a spirit of solidarity – to build a more resilient society that is safe for us all, wherever we may live. We need better biosecurity and healthcare capacity, better education, and better foresight. It’s not too soon to start planning for the next pandemic – whenever and wherever that may arise. And now, more than ever, as habitat and biodiversity loss continue to increase, we need to re-examine our relationship with the natural world, and the animals we exploit. Unless we do, COVID-19 may only be the tip of the iceberg.
Stay Safe and Stay in Touch
Research has shown that contact with nature – both physical and virtual – is good for your wellbeing. If you’re stuck indoors and feeling low, why not put on a nature documentary, open your window for some fresh air / birdsong, or follow us on Facebook, Instagram or LinkedIn for inspirational images from the natural world? During this time of distancing, social solidarity is more important than ever.
Weaver ants working as a team to repair their home. Let’s join forces too! These are tough times, but we’re all in it together!