By Tennyson Williams
The origins of the deadly pandemic that’s sweeping across the world leaving a trail of destruction, are thought to originate from a wet market in Wuhan, China, where wild animals were sold. Science suggests the virus came from bats, and moved to humans via an intermediary animal, potentially a pangolin – a scaly anteater like animal. While the exact animal it came from is uncertain, we do know that this was caused by the exploitation of wild animals.
This pandemic has created an extraordinary situation, but the circumstances about how it emerged, are not.
In fact, more than 70% of emerging zoonotic infectious diseases come from wildlife. The SARS epidemic for example, was thought to originate from eating civets, a cat sized mammal. The long list of infections passed to humans by animals also includes MERS, Ebola, HIV, and rabies. As we expand into more wildlife habitats, the more we come into close contact with wild animals and this is risky business. Not only that – taking animals from the wild or breeding them in captivity to be sold in markets that are unregulated, unhygienic, and stressful for the animals, creates a lethal concoction for diseases to thrive.
The human health threat is an issue which has been magnified by the global crisis we are currently living. People are tragically losing lives, loved ones, jobs, and income. It’s also taking a toll on our mental health with isolation and freedom of movement restricted. People are suffering. But wild animals can no longer be the forgotten victims.
Animals are at the centre of a cruel multi-billion-dollar business that exploits them on an industrial scale. Exploited to be eaten, used in medicine, kept as exotic pets, or used as photo props as a ‘once in a lifetime’ holiday experience. They face fear and suffering, deprived of the life they’d have in the wild. They are shipped around as freight, treated as mere commodities, with their wellbeing ignored. They are crammed into cages, kept in poor health, and often killed for their body parts. Make no mistake – this is a business that is inherently cruel.
The wildlife trade might be viewed as a valuable stream of income by people such as hunters, farmers, exporters and vendors. But experts suggest that the current COVID-19 pandemic could cost the global economy trillions of dollars (USD), putting us on track for the worst economic crisis since the ‘Great Depression’ of the 1930s. This cruelty comes at a price that the world cannot afford to pay.
But we could reset the balance and leave wild animals in their natural habitats. They are sentient beings capable of experiencing joy and sadness and emotional bonds. Anyone who’s seen an elephant grieving over the loss of a herd member, or a dolphin playing among their pod will know. They play critical roles in ecosystems around the world. Yet the wildlife trade is unsustainable, pushing many species to the brink of extinction, and this becomes more urgent as our population grows.
When we leave animals in the wild, we create a world that is free of man-made animal cruelty and subsequently, zoonotic threats are drastically reduced. We can’t just leave this to chance. A global wildlife trade ban is the only way to end the cruelty and protect our health.
To effectively prevent another pandemic and protect animals, humans and the global economy – we need a global commitment, and it needs to encompass the commercial trade of all wild animals. This means banning wild animals for food, medicine, pets, luxury products and for entertainment, as it’s not just consumption of wild animals that carries risks.
This also needs to go hand in hand with enforcement, economic alternatives and education, to reduce the risk of consumer demand driving the wildlife trade underground. We really need to challenge the current status quo. Less demand means less suffering, and ultimately, lessens the risk of future pandemics. This isn’t just wishful thinking. China has made some promising steps, responding to the pandemic by banning the consumption of wild animals as food, and Vietnam is also preparing something similar. Many are also turning their backs on eating wild animals out of choice.
A total ban on the global wildlife trade is urgently needed, as is the need for us to change how we view wild animals. If we don’t take urgent action, eventually, wild animals and habitats could be lost forever, while human health will be teetering on the edge of another pandemic.
Global problems require global solutions, and the G20 Leaders’ Summit in November provides an opportunity for world leaders to lay down plans that could protect us from future catastrophes like COVID-19. By committing to end the global wildlife trade, and for G20 members to introduce and enforce domestic bans, they have a unique opportunity to right this wrong.
It isn’t just the responsibility of the world’s leaders though, we all have a role to play, to make better choices for wild animals. Because, wild animals don’t belong to us, they belong in the wild, and this is how we’ll stop future pandemics.
Tennyson Williams is the Director for World Animal Protection in Africa.