Is a ban on wildlife trade the best way to prevent another pandemic?

It is likely that the COVID-19 pandemic originated in a live animal market in Wuhan, China. Before it was shut down, Wuhan market displayed about 50 different species of wild animals, including some endangered species.

Live wildlife markets, when left unregulated, can be a breeding ground for diseases. Species traded there — that usually originate from very different environments and have very different immunities — are suddenly placed in extremely close proximity. Being crammed in cages surrounded by loud noises and other distressed animals while being handled constantly adds additional stress, which ends up further weakening their immune systems. This creates an environment extremely suitable for diseases to jump from one species to another, and eventually to humans.

Today’s pandemic is not the only outbreak that can be linked back to wild animals. SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), Ebola and HIV were all transmitted to humans through wild animals. SARS has also been linked to a wild animal market in China. It was prevalent in civet cats in wildlife markets, but not in those bred on farms, which suggests that the civets acquired it from another animal in the market.

Egypt is also a player in the global wildlife trade: both as a link between Africa and Asia, and as a destination itself. Many species are moved through our ports, both legally and illegally. We are also a supplier for the Middle East — in the capture and trade of wild predatory birds, for example. Other species are captured and traded locally in smaller-scale animal markets in the hearts of our big cities. We too are a part of this conversation and should consider which role we wish to play.

Reptile seizures in air transport, 2009-2019 - Courtesy: USAID Reducing Opportunities for Unlawful Transport of Endangered Species (ROUTES) Partnership

It is still unclear in which animal COVID-19 originated, and how it was passed on to humans. It may have first emerged in bats, which are known to harbor a large number of coronaviruses, and spread to humans from pangolins, an endangered mammal thought to be the most trafficked species in the world. They are considered a delicacy and their scales are commonly used in Traditional Chinese medicine.

The U.S.-based nonprofit Wildlife Conservation Society is calling to end the global wildlife trade in live animal markets, illegal trafficking and poaching of wild animals — if not to save species from extinction, then to save ourselves from the next pandemic.  

More than 300 organizations signed an open letter to the World Health Organization, urging it to recommend a permanent ban on live wildlife markets around the world. The organizations in their letter also encourage providing alternative sources of protein for communities who live on wild animal meat.

But is a ban on wildlife trade the best way to prevent another pandemic and protect biodiversity? 

In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, China has issued a temporary ban on wildlife consumption and farming and just recently, Wuhan banned all wildlife consumption. It is expected that these bans could become law relatively soon.

The Chinese ban makes an exception for animals used in Traditional Chinese medicine, the manufacturing of leather and fur, and research. Most Traditional Chinese medicine is plant-based and was the primary source of health care until the early 1900s. In the 1950s, the People’s Republic of China standardized a form of Traditional Chinese medicine, which is still prevalent today. According to the Ministry of Science and Technology, 85 percent of COVID-19 patients across China have used some form of herbal treatment. The WHO recently included traditional medicine in its medical compendium.

A survey funded by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) showed that among five countries in Southeast Asia, the general public had a strong understanding of the correlation between the COVID-19 outbreak and wildlife trade markets, and most respondents said they would support a ban on these markets.

However, it’s important to note that the WWF has been implicated in violent colonial practices against indigenous people in pursuit of its agenda. According to Survival International, an organization that works alongside indigenous communities to safeguard their rights, the WWF’s approach is more about profit than conservation, as tourism, trophy hunting, and resource extraction industries are permitted to operate, while locals are pushed out or banned from practicing livelihood activities such as hunting or grazing. In fact, many Western conservation organizations do not account for the needs of locals, an unfortunate reality that is primarily due to the colonial history of traditional conservation.

The unsustainable wildlife trade is “the second-largest direct threat to biodiversity globally, after habitat destruction,” according to the WWF report. Sustainability is indeed a key question. Many organizations are against blanket bans on the wildlife trade, suggesting they are “unlikely to benefit people or wildlife … because they overlook the complexity of the wildlife trade.” An outright ban can have several opposite effects, including increased market price due to protected status, black market trade, organized crime, increased poaching, and increased hygiene risks that come with unregulated trade, not to mention the effects on the livelihoods of people involved or dependent on these activities. A 2017 report by the Chinese Academy of Engineering found that wildlife trade in China was worth over US$73 billion and employed more than a million citizens. The Traditional Chinese medicine industry, which was recently promoted by President Xi Jinping is conservatively estimated to be worth a whopping $130 billion. Wild animals are even for sale online via Taobao, a Chinese e-commerce website run by Alibaba. 

An outright ban on live wildlife markets could simply push them from the cities into black markets in villages and rural communities, where they would be much more difficult to control. If an outbreak occurs in this case, people will not be incentivized to talk to authorities, and a pandemic would not be stopped in time. In China, for instance, certain animal species are used for both medicine and consumption, which in the wake of a potential ban on wildlife consumption might only create a medical loophole for illegal trafficking of certain species.

A similar situation led to the emergence of a “gray market” for the bones of wild tigers, which are used medicinally in China. Although the buying, sale and use of tiger bone was banned many years ago, it propelled the emergence of tiger farms around the country, which were later authorized by the government. This led to an increased demand on tiger parts, which also increased poaching because of a difference in the cost of raising a bred tiger versus hunting a wild tiger (approximately $7,000 vs. $15).

China’s government promotes the idea that wildlife domestication is the key to increasing livelihoods in rural areas, as it provides an additional source of income and stable food supply, which alleviates the government’s responsibilities. Just recently, China’s National Health Commission published a list of recommended treatments for COVID-19, which included bear bile powder.

The recent temporary closure of wildlife farms due to the COVID-19 outbreak has put the spotlight on just how large the industry is. Although only 3,725 permits were issued between 2005 and 2013 by the forestry administration, more than 19,000 farms were shut down since the outbreak.

Although China is being highlighted as a ‘wildlife trade hotspot’ due to the recent outbreak, other major import markets include the United States and Europe. East Africa, Southern Africa, Southeast Asia, the eastern borders of the EU, some markets in Mexico, parts of the Caribbean, parts of Indonesia and New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands are all struggling with unregulated wildlife trade and export.

The trade of wild animals is an extremely complex global market with a very long supply chain made up of different players, and it includes both sustainable and unsustainable forms of trade. Any ban needs to be extremely well considered — otherwise it can exacerbate the very outcomes it was meant to prevent, as we’ve seen many times before.

In 1979, for instance, more than 100 countries came together and agreed to ban the rhinoceros horn from being traded after the species was on the brink of extinction. Today we are seeing huge increases in poaching in rhinos, elephants and tigers, all in spite of longstanding bans in the trade of their parts. Some critics say that, just like the war on drugs, banning these products makes them more valuable, and as the stakes get higher, the trade becomes more dangerous.

In 2018, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species began an initiative to study how legal and sustainable trade can contribute to people’s livelihoods as well as conservation. Thirty new case studies of sustainable use of wildlife were presented, ranging from mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fish to corals and plants.

For example, careful management of trophy hunting programs for Bighorn Sheep in Mexico and Ibex and Markhor in Tajikistan have led to significant growth in wild populations that were dwindling, reduced habitat degradation by overgrazing from livestock, reduced poaching, and important economic and social benefits for local communities as well as incentives to protect these species.

The failures and harmful effects of outright bans in the past drive us to look for another way forward. There is enough evidence to suggest that better-regulated trade with full consideration of international wildlife trade laws, animal welfare, global health regulations and the livelihoods and aspirations of local communities would be a better solution.

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