Wildlife trafficking, a recipe for next zoonotic disease outbreak

Wildlife market in Myanmar
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Manila, Philippines
Wildlife trafficking, a recipe for next zoonotic disease outbreak
This is Part 1 of a two-part story on how wildlife trafficking helps spread zoonotic diseases. Read Part 2 here.

MANILA, Philippines — In roughly three months, the new coronavirus has drastically reshaped the world, forcing economies and daily activities to a standstill. Following the earliest reported cases in mainland China, the coronavirus disease, or COVID-19, has rapidly spread to more than 200 countries, afflicting over 630,000 people and killing more than 30,000, according to the World Health Organization.

Governments are scrambling to contain the virus, but its actual source remains unconfirmed. COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, meaning that it is caused by a virus that has leaped from animals to humans.

But while studies have yet to reach their conclusions, viral posts online have pinned the blame on bats and pangolins as potential hosts.

As the world grapples with the pandemic, conservationists say this public health emergency should also reinforce a hard-earned lesson: To prevent the next pandemic from zoonotic diseases, wildlife must be left to thrive in the wild.

Emerging diseases

At the crux of this target is serious action from governments worldwide to finally put an end to the illegal wildlife trade, a multibillion-dollar industry fueled by the demand for the rare and made complex by poverty, misconceptions and cultural beliefs.

Scientists say 70 percent of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic. Animals serve as reservoirs of viruses, bacteria, and fungi that occur naturally in their bodies but which may be fatal in the case of a “spillover” to another species.

In biodiversity hot spots like the Philippines, which loses P50 billion (US$981 million) a year due to the illegal trade, the risk for the transfer of pathogens between wild animals and humans is high, with hunters and poachers coming in contact with a wide variety of animals sourced from different areas.

COVID-19 should offer a familiar story. The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) were caused by different strains of coronaviruses transmitted from animals.

While some studies have identified bats as the primary origin of the viruses, experts say that human consumption of palm civets and exposure to dromedary camels had allowed the pathogens to jump from one species to another, triggering the SARS and MERS epidemics, respectively.

“In the last 30 or 40 years, what we see is an acceleration of these emerging infectious diseases,” said Phillip Alviola, a field biologist from the University of the Philippines Los Baños and one of the country’s foremost experts on bats. Since the SARS outbreak, Alviola and other scientists have thoroughly studied these winged mammals to learn about the pathogens that their bodies may be carrying.

“The interface between humans and animals is getting narrower, meaning they are getting more in contact with each other,” he told the Inquirer.


Shrinking interface

As populations swell, more and more humans also encroach on the habitats of wild animals, forcing them out and leading to biodiversity loss.

“Aside from this shrinking interface,” Alviola said, “there is wildlife trade and consumption, which could increase the threat.”

When the first cases of COVID-19 were reported, authorities turned their eyes on a seafood and meat market in the Chinese city of Wuhan, considered the outbreak’s epicenter. Before its forced closure, it was a wet market where live animals, including those exotic and threatened, were slaughtered and sold as food.

In February, Beijing announced an immediate ban on the trade and consumption of wild animals, in the hope of stemming the growing cases of COVID-19 in China. In 2003, a similar but limited ban on trade was imposed by Beijing following the SARS outbreak that originated in the southern city of Guangdong.

But when that public health crisis tapered, the trade easily returned. Today, China remains among the largest markets for the wildlife trade, which includes animals and animal products trafficked from regions such as Southeast Asia.

Perfect disaster

The very nature of wildlife trafficking makes for a perfect recipe for the next zoonotic disease, experts say.

Beyond being an environmental concern, trafficking wild animals is a “biosecurity issue,” said lawyer Edward Lorenzo, a wildlife crime prevention adviser for Protect Wildlife, an initiative from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) working on biodiversity conservation in the Philippines. 

“These animals are consolidated in a single establishment or packed in small containers,” he said. “Are these wildlife mixed with other species? Yes. Is there a risk of transmission? Yes.”

Also present is the threat of spreading diseases throughout the entire trafficking route, where animals are often smuggled long distances via land or sea to avoid capture. When placed in stressful conditions, they can shed more viruses, as seen in a new study on bats by scientists from the University of California at Berkeley.

Whatever the source of the new coronavirus turns out to be, conservationists hope that the COVID-19 pandemic will leave in its wake crucial lessons for the global community on how it deals with wildlife.

“If you call it a good thing — for lack of a better term — I think now there is increased awareness on the additional risks of wildlife trade,” Lorenzo said.

“And we have to stop saying that we were infected by wildlife. It’s the other way around,” he added. “We are the ones who exposed ourselves to what they were carrying. They didn’t give it to us. I hope people see that it’s not the fault of the wildlife.”

This story was produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. 

Banner image: A wildlife trading market in Möng La, Shan, Myanmar / Credit: Dan Bennett via Creative Commons.

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