In an unprecedented and rapid response to the deadly coronavirus outbreak, China has taken the commendable and courageous decision to impose a temporary nationwide ban on all wildlife trade.
With an estimated 70 per cent of all emerging diseases being of wild animal origin, there is no denying that the growing global trade in wildlife (whether it is legal or illegal) has been cited as a disease transmission mechanism of growing global concern.
After all, the combination of terrible animal suffering and lack of proper biosecurity measures at a typical “wet market” provide the perfect opportunity for pathogens like viruses to mutate and spread. Here, animals with weakened immunities, due to the stress and trauma from wild capture or intensive captive breeding, left to sit in their own urine and waste are an all too common sight.
This, combined with close human contact can create a recipe for disaster. In modern times, the threat has grown to global proportions as people capture wild animals from their natural habitats and transport and trade them dead or alive to different parts of the world by land, sea and air.
There are a complex range of factors that influence a country’s risk of transmitting zoonotic diseases from wild animals, and its ability to deal with the consequences.
For example, based on the number of animals traded, our recent review of the CITES Trade Database identified a number of countries that warrant attention. In particular, China is the largest exporter of live mammals with 98,979 animals representing 58.7 per cent of all global trade listed on this international treaty between 2011 and 2016 alone.
However, this isn’t just about numbers, a deadly disease such as coronavirus can emerge from one single animal, and with wildlife markets such as the one in Wuhan, China found worldwide, the potential for this to keep occurring is a real threat.
So what should be done? Rather than simply treating wild animals as “bags of disease” and attempting to eradicate pathogens or cull the wild animals that harbour them, efforts that decrease contact between wild animals and people could prove to be the most practical and cost-effective approach in reducing the this global human health threat. In the long-term, we need to tackle the consumer demand for wildlife and their body parts.
In the short-term, trade bans (like that now imposed by China) have also been proposed as a tool to help reduce the spread of the disease. However, if they are to be fully effective, these bans should be global and underpinned by efforts to reduce demand.
China’s national ban on wildlife trade will prevent the terrible suffering endured by millions of wild animals traded for use as exotic pets, traditional medicine and meat countrywide. Crucially, it will also put a stop to the horrific conditions they endure both in transportation and markets that serve as such a lethal hotbed of disease.
Whether this ban is made permanent, and if adequate measures will be taken to safeguard the welfare of animals already caught up in wildlife trade, remains to be seen. In the short-term, however, it will undoubtedly serve to protect wildlife and people.
There are many reasons to be concerned about regulation of wildlife trade – from animal welfare to conservation and ethics - but the risk posed by pathogens (and of emerging zoonoses), as we can see with the current coronavirus outbreak can be not be under estimated and must be urgently addressed.
Dr Neil D’Cruze,
Head of wildlife research, World Animal Protection