Photo: "Wet market" in Indonesia. Credit: Kalinga Seneviatne | INPS-IDN - Photo: 2020

COVID-19 Could Lead to Better Protection of Biodiversity and Wild Animals

By Kalinga Seneviratne

This article is the 38th in a series of joint productions of Lotus News Features and IDN-InDepthNews, flagship of the International Press Syndicate. Click here for previous articles.

SYDNEY (IDN) – A positive outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic could be a better understanding of protecting biodiversity and a global ban on the trade in wild animals for food. The belief that COVID-19 began at a “wet market” in Wuhan in China, where wild animals were being sold for human consumption, has led to the Chinese government banning the trade in wild animals and a growing international campaign for this to be made into an enforceable international law. 

At the Wuhan “wet market” and in many such markets across China and Vietnam as well, numerous wild animals, including live wolf pups, salamanders, crocodiles, scorpions, rats, squirrels, foxes, civets and turtles are being sold for human consumption.

However, the international media’s use of word “wet markets” is dangerous because such markets exist right across Asia, including squeaky clean Singapore, where wild animals are not sold. Farmed animals, fish and vegetables are sold at these “wet markets” and it is named as such because the vendors wash the market stalls every morning for hygienic reasons before the food items are displayed for sale.

Such “wet markets” are where the poorer segments of the society come to do their daily shopping because of the low overheads, the food there is less expensive than in supermarkets and often fresher. The International Institute of Environment and Development (IIED) argued in a recent blog post that rather than pointing fingers at “wet markets” we should be looking at the burgeoning trade in wild animals. “It is wild animals rather than farmed animals that are the natural hosts of many viruses,” state Eric Fèvre and Cecilia Tacoli in their blog.

The legal and illegal trade of wildlife for human consumption is a multi-billion-dollar industry and recognized as one of the most severe threats to biodiversity. Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, ecologists and virologists have warned about the dangers of destroying biodiversity and the advent of new viruses as humans interact more directly with wild animals by destroying forests for “development” such as building roads and railways, expanding farmlands and human habitats.

In 2008, a team of researchers from the school of ecology and biodiversity from the University College London identified 335 diseases that emerged between 1960 and 2004, at least 60% of which came from animals.

Almost every global pandemic that has occurred in the past three decades are due to pathogens crossing from animals to humans. Among them are the 1996 Ebola, 2003 SARS, 2012 Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and 2013 Avian Flu outbreaks – in all the virus transmission went from animals or birds to humans.

On February 2, the most powerful arm of the Chinese Community Party, the Politburo Standing Committee headed by President Xi Jinping issued a statement banning the sale of wild animals for human consumptions across China.

“We must strengthen market supervision, resolutely ban and severely crack down on illegal wildlife markets and trade, and control major public health risks from the source,” the statement said. However, recent reports in the international media of some of those wild animals’ markets re-opening has raised concern about the Chinese government’s resolve to implement the order.

Meanwhile, an international campaign is gathering steam to ban wild animal markets. A U.S. based organisation that promotes plant-based, preventative medicine called ‘Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine‘ which has a membership of 12,000 physicians, has begun a petition asking both the U.S. Government and World Health Organization (WHO) to ban wild animal markets.

The petition has been signed by 225 physicians, including Eric J. Brandt, cardiologist and lipidologist at Yale University School of Medicine, and Michelle L. O’Donoghue, a professor at Harvard Medical School, according to LIVEKINDLY Media, an American Vegan-promoting news site.

The petitioners point out that live animal markets aren’t exclusive to China. They are located around the world, including in Europe and the U.S. “Live animal markets are a welcome mat to coronaviruses,” the doctors state in the petition. “The failure to close a single live animal market in China led to a pandemic that has closed countless businesses worldwide and led to an enormous death toll and economic havoc.”

According to The Guardian of London, Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, the acting executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity has also called for a global ban on wildlife markets to prevent future pandemics, but she has cautioned against unintended consequences.

“We should also remember you have communities, particularly from low-income rural areas, particularly in Africa, which are dependent on wild animals to sustain the livelihoods of millions of people,” she told the Guardian. “So, unless we get alternatives for these communities, there might be a danger of opening up illegal trade in wild animals … we need to look at how we balance that and really close the hole of illegal trade in the future.”

In October 2019, an article in the American ‘Science’ magazine pointed out that there is a widespread trade in wild animals in biological diverse tropics and up to 8,775 species are at the risk of extinction due to this trade. It called for proactive, rather than reactive, measures to stop this trade.

In the U.S., Senator Lindsey Graham is leading calls for China to keep its wild animal markets closed, as the U.S. media claims these are being reopened. Earlier in April, he called on Senate lawmakers to sign on to a letter he sent to the Chinese ambassador to the U.S. “urging the immediate closure of these wet markets for the safety of the world at large”.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, in a radio interview on April 3, called for a global crackdown and ban on what he calls “Chinese wet markets”. His call came after there was widespread coverage in the Australian media of wild animal markets reopening in China after a national two-month long lockdown to eradicate the virus.

If this trade in wild animals for human consumption is going to be halted across the globe, David Quammen, author of ‘Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Pandemic’ argues that we need to look at the broader picture of human behaviour and destruction of biodiversity.

“We invade tropical forests and other wild landscapes, which harbour so many species of animals and plants – and within those creatures, so many unknown viruses,” he said in a recent article published by the New York Times.

“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.” [IDN-InDepthNews – 10 April 2020]

Photo: “Wet market” in Indonesia. Credit: Kalinga Seneviatne | INPS-IDN

IDN is flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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This article was produced as a part of the joint media project between The Non-profit International Press Syndicate Group and Soka Gakkai International in Consultative Status with ECOSOC on 10 April 2020.

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