New paper out, on 19.3.2021 by Arias et al., in Animal Conservation discusses the drivers of the Illegal Wildlife Trade in jaguars in Bolivia based on interviews with local communities.
Illegal trade and human‐wildlife conflict are two key drivers of biodiversity loss and are recognized as leading threats to large carnivores. Although human‐wildlife conflict involving jaguars (Panthera onca) has received significant attention in the past, less is known about traditional use or commercial trade in jaguar body parts, including their potential links with retaliatory killing. Understanding the drivers of jaguar killing, trade and consumption is necessary to develop appropriate jaguar conservation strategies, particularly as demand for jaguar products appears to be rising due to Chinese demand. We interviewed 1107 rural households in north‐western Bolivia, an area with an active history of human–jaguar conflict, which has also been at the epicentre of recent jaguar trade cases. We collected information on participants’ experiences with jaguars, their jaguar killing, trading and consuming behaviours and potential drivers of these behaviours. We found that the relationships between local people and jaguars are complex and are driven largely by traditional practices, opportunism, human–jaguar conflict and market incentives from foreign and domestic demand, in the absence of law awareness and enforcement. Addressing jaguar trade and building human–jaguar coexistence will require a multifaceted approach that considers the multiple drivers of jaguar killing, trade and consumption, from foreign and local demand to human–jaguar conflict.
Two years and a lifetime ago when we embarked as a community on a horizon scan process to identify possible game changing issues that would shape tomorrow’s decisions on illegal wildlife trade (IWT), Africa was growing at 3-5% annually and the continent’s leaders had just signed the African Continental Free Trade Area agreement, setting out a path for free movement of goods and people across the 54 nations of Africa. Africa’s development path and the extent to which wildlife is accounted for in its plans was identified as one of the top 20 emerging issues prioritised through the horizon scan process deemed to significantly affect the future of IWT.
Covid-19 has transformed how we, humanity, live on this planet. In a matter of weeks our transport, trade and health systems has been radically altered in a desperate attempt to halt the spread of a pathogen that likely originated in the wild and spread through contact between species. As a result, the rules, customs and systems around wildlife trade are changing. How they change and who has a say in how they change matters.
Africa’s strategic growth plans to open up the continent are now on hold and the April 2020 International Monetary Fund projections place Africa’s growth rate at a record low of 1.6%. Field reports from colleagues from DRC to Zimbabwe express rising food and fuel prices and increasing insecurity. A situation also experienced in urban centers. According to the World Bank, agriculture production across the continent may decline by as much as 7% due to supply disruptions. This coupled with this year’s infestations of locusts and flooding events across parts of the continent is creating serious concerns about food insecurity. Tourism, once a cornerstone of funding for wildlife conservation, has ceased overnight. The sector is facing an unprecedented crisis which has ripple effects in protected areas, conservancies and communities dependent on revenues for operations.
The current global economic meltdown has put a fork in the road for future progress of many African countries – providing a moment of pause before moving forward in one or another direction. How Africa’s leaders respond to the current crisis will shape Africa’s development for decades to come. There is a possibility this decision point will be used to transition into a system that is more inclusive, green and restorative, but equally the opposite could be true. In our horizon scan paper (see Supplementary Material Appendices 2 & 3 in particular) we posited that future African free trade presents opportunities to combat IWT by providing stronger governance over trade, systemised border crossings and cross-border law enforcement collaboration. Together as a global community we should concentrate efforts to enhance the management and coordination of wildlife trade while also investing in sustainable rural jobs that provide legitimate economic opportunities for rural youth. These approaches will incentivise communities to combat IWT while at the same time ensuring that wildlife products are managed through robust rules and institutions embedded in Africa’s growth strategies, investment plans and trade agreements. Covid-19 has made it clear that strong and effective governance over trade, systemised border crossings and cross-border law enforcement are not just requirements for vibrant, resilient economies, but also essential for protecting public health and wellbeing in the age of global pandemics.
The role of wildlife trade and the relationship between economic systems and nature is continuously being redefined, even on a personal individual level for many. Africa needs to play a central role in reshaping these relationships and global agreements have an important place in creating a more robust framework for managing risks and creating incentives for green growth opportunities. While historically the tendency in global dialogues has been for a few dominant perspectives to dictate conditions on such issues, there is a growing effort to meaningfully engaging a wider set of stakeholders to address interconnected transcontinental challenges.
As African leaders and youth assert their ownership over development pathways, Africans will choose their own development path. As we begin to think about how to recover from this pandemic, it is more important than ever that we deepen and broaden our partnerships, jointly define solutions, and strengthen our collective capacity to address challenges we will face, together.
This is a part of the On the IWT horizon series for proactive engagement with wildlife trade issues in an unsettled world.
Read the full paper in Conservation Letters, Emerging illegal wildlife trade issues: A global horizon scan.
With thanks to Nafeesa Esmail for her leadership throughout the Horizon Scan process and thoughtful review of the piece, to Catherine Workman and Zara Bending for their helpful inputs, and to Kaddu Sebunya for his vision and tireless advocacy for African voices for wildlife and wild lands.
 2020. IMF. Regional economic outlook. Sub-Saharan Africa: COVID-19: an unprecedented threat to development. Washington, DC. ISBN 9781513536835
 Despite fuel price drops elsewhere due to over supply and falling demand, in remote areas where AWF operates the case is different, with fuel prices rising perhaps because of challenges to do with supply chains.
With one million users joining platforms every day, co-authors of the first global horizon scan on illegal wildlife trade (IWT) call for further research into social media’s influence on wildlife trafficking networks and consumer behaviour.
“Social media is relevant to traders, consumers, researchers and law enforcers, as a platform for sales, influence (both negatively and positively), and data source.” Subsequently, it was prioritised as one of the top issues of future importance.
Social media acts as both a marketplace and a forum where behaviours associated with IWT can be stimulated or deterred. Two years on, our findings hold even greater significance as online wildlife trade continues, with new challenges (including COVID-19 induced shifts) multiplying the need for proactive action.
Brokering deals & establishing networks
Increasing mobile device and social media usage enables sellers to connect directly with buyers, and co-ordinate with other actors along supply chains 24/7. For example, live great ape trafficking is described as an ‘expanding extractive industry’ and valued between USD 2.3-18.8 million annually. Animals are advertised even before transport and pricing are agreed upon, often via private, encrypted messaging platforms. Hashtags and key words are often employed to maximise ad searchability for prospective buyers.
During our initial assessment in 2018, regulating IWT activities (including advertising and transacting) was largely left to users, with host platform companies offering minimal response. IWT was not within-scope for moderators, and users had virtually no reporting mechanisms. In recommending a path forward, scanners stressed that tackling IWT on social media ought to be embedded in broader conversations around transnational e-governance, with companies themselves assuming leadership and contributing more than ad-hoc responses, particularly as algorithms typically connect actors along supply chains faster than moderators can action ‘take-downs’.
With calls for intelligence-led wildlife cybercrime enforcement and co-ordinated policy responses across e-commerce, search, and social media companies, WWF, TRAFFIC and IFAW launched the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online in 2018. This year, the Coalition (which boasts 30+ companies including Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Tencent and Weibo), reported removing or blocking 3,335,381 endangered species listings from their platforms as well as isolating 1000+ suspicious code words. However, with the dark figure of crime looming, it’s difficult to fully comprehend the precise extent of impact.
Now Trending: social media promoting extraction and exploitation
At CITES CoP18, parties considered a range of species listings and one notable topic was “CITES in the selfie era”. In fact, social media isn’t only a virtual marketplace for IWT but a means to promote activities driving the wild extraction and/or exploitation of wildlife for commercial purposes.
Nowhere is this more apparent than unethical wildlife tourism, where tourists continue to put themselves and wildlife at risk for ‘shareable’ content. A quick online search will no doubt generate images of tourists riding or bathing elephants, cuddling cubs, drinking kopi-luwak…whatever is on-trend.
One of the latest trends sees wild animals including otters, meerkats, slow lorises, pygmy marmosets and sugar gliders held in close quarters to service Japan’s Exotic Animal Café scene- frequented by Youtube vloggers and Instagram influencers. The scene has also fuelled the illicit market for exotic pets. A recent study found that an increase in social media activity between 2016-2018 may not have only driven an increase in otter popularity, but also created and disseminated misinformation about their suitability as companions.
Misperceptions of wildlife as ‘domesticated’ through the normalisation of close contact in characteristically human settings has impacted wild populations. TRAFFIC identified the pet trade to be the most pressing threat to the survival of otters in South-East Asia despite domestic and international law. In response to evidence presented at CITES CoP18, parties voted to add two more species to CITES Appendix I, affording them the highest level of protection with respect to international trade controls. However, with regulators like CITES generally operating reactively to evidence of species decline, it is clear more needs to be done to target behaviours that create permissive attitudes to illicit wildlife trade.
Online traders profiting off misinformation
As demonstrated in the otter trade, misinformation circulates just as quickly as fact online. Rhino horn continues to be the subject of countless myths, from the false belief that it was widely used as an aphrodisiac in Traditional Chinese Medicine, to more recently being touted as a COVID-19 cure marketed on social media by sellers in China and Laos. The use of misinformation in policy and practice (Issue 5) was one issue canvassed in our scan where social media acted as a force-multiplier. Indeed, one of the key strengths of our methodology was spotting where issues intersected, paving the way for future scans to expand on these linkages towards integrated solutions.
A tool for good?
It’s not all bad news though. Social media can be central to campaigns promoting a culture of safety and respect for wildlife. In recent years, social media has also given users a place to mobilise conservation action from frustration, for example, following the loss of Cecil the Lion or the last male Northern White Rhino, Sudan. It also provides a plane for behaviour change researchers to plot out interventions aimed at influencing individual users (including traffickers), networks, and larger institutional actors. Given the demand-driven dynamics of many IWT products and derivatives, investment in research and education campaigns are well-placed to yield positive impacts.
The purpose of horizon scanning isn’t merely to identify what lies ahead, but to gather intel to change course before the storm strikes. With species continuously vulnerable to endangerment or extinction, evidence-based action must prevail before time runs out.
This is a part of the On the IWT horizon series for proactive engagement with wildlife trade issues in an unsettled world.
Read the full paper in Conservation Letters, Emerging illegal wildlife trade issues: A global horizon scan.
With thanks to Nafeesa Esmail and Catherine Workman for their helpful inputs into this piece.
Zara Bending is an Associate at the Centre for Environmental Law, Macquarie University and an expert with Jane Goodall Institute Global’s ‘ForeverWild’
It is tragic, but true that scientists cannot always be honest in describing where newly discovered species live, as that information can be – and has been – used by wildlife traffickers.
With scientific research increasingly available and open to the public online, poachers are more easily able to use scientific publications and other media outlets that describe commercially valuable new species and their locations for their own benefit. Beautiful and unique plant and animal species, especially those with small home ranges endemic to islands or specialized habitats are particularly vulnerable. This isn’t alarmist speculation: a newly discovered Vietnamese orchid was wiped out by commercial collectors less than a year after researchers identified and described it; similarly, a turtle from the Indonesian island of Roti was nearly driven to extinction shortly after scholars published its description and location. These are just two instances; examples abound.
The problem is not only restricted to species collected for the pet trade. Plants and animals collected for use in Traditional Chinese Medicine and animals desired for the bushmeat trade are also targeted once discovered. For example, the silver-backed chevrotain, a so-called ‘mouse-deer’ was rediscovered in 2019 in Vietnam after 30 years of the scientific world believing it had been driven to extinction. The authors withheld detailed geographic information, given the region’s extensive commercial wildlife trade, and the chevrotain’s popularity as wildlife meat.
If locality data are endangering species scientists themselves want to protect, why not omit such information altogether? There are valid reasons to publish species discoveries and descriptions. Describing new species encourages additional research that is needed to develop conservation measures on what are often endangered species. Species discoveries are also a fantastic way to excite the general public about the natural world.
Unfortunately, there has yet to be a unified approach by scientists, journals, or media outlets (or much coordination in general) in reporting discoveries and sharing species descriptions. For instance, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) stores nonpublic maps of some endangered species threatened by trade; some journals do the same. While publishing, some scientists and scientific journals withhold sensitive, detailed data from species descriptions, while some authors provide that information only upon request. Others have called for scientists to exercise self-censorship and only share detailed locality information with governments. Yet, some still refuse to withhold such details entirely.
Given this fragmented approach to publishing location information, how can scientists and publishers resolve and realign objectives? There is an inexorable push towards more open access data, exasperated by the scientific desire to be complete and factually descriptive, but along with that data need, there are paramount policy concerns of confidentiality. If all organizations could adopt and adhere to a single framework of policies to limit access to sensitive information, it would make it more difficult for illicit traders to find newly described (or rediscovered) species. This would certainly ensure the tools and information of scientists aren’t used to harm the species that they seek to study. Given that some mediums do not yet exclude or discourage geographic coordinates, now is the time for new policies and the adoption of formal guidelines to withhold locality data, especially for those species likely to be in high demand due to their beauty or uniqueness.
In our recently published Emerging illegal wildlife trade issues: a global horizon scan, we highlight species discoveries and descriptions aiding and increasing trafficking as one of the top 20 significant issues affecting the illegal wildlife trade. Since the initiation of the horizon scan in 2018, a co-author helped write and publish another paper stressing the importance of security considerations in publishing conservation spatial data. That paper proposed using geo-indistinguishability to preserve location privacy, a novel approach in conservation, which should be encouraged and if widely adopted by the scientific community could avoid future harm.
Our paper (see Supplementary Material Appendix 3) offers other solutions, such as conducting market research to address taxa or groups that are particularly vulnerable (such as orchids mentioned above) and adapting strategies accordingly to minimize the risk of illegal commercial exploitation. We also suggest that risk communications be targeted to value chain participants, being careful not to unintentionally increase desirability to consumers. Here’s to the hope that in the coming years scientists and publishers take more concrete, standardized action to close gaps with effective policies and realign competing demands: to publish and share data whilst conserving imperiled species.
This is a part of the On the IWT horizon series for proactive engagement with wildlife trade issues in an unsettled world.
Read the full paper in Conservation Letters, Emerging illegal wildlife trade issues: A global horizon scan.
With thanks to Nafeesa Esmail and Jack Lam for their helpful inputs into this piece.
By Jack Lam
The largest ever dried shark fin seizures were made by Hong Kong authorities earlier this month in May 2020; the combined volumes of the two shipments from Ecuador more than doubled last year’s total volume. However, sharks are not the only marine wildlife trafficked transnationally. The persistent demand for their fins is but one side of a multi-dimensional global trade network of Haiwei.
The Chinese phrase Haiwei (海味) translates literally to “sea flavours,” and refers specifically to edible seafood products that have been preserved by dehydration. Although the consumption of dried seafood is widely documented throughout Asia and the rest of the world, here the term Haiwei is used to establish the identity of a specific culture of consumption and trade in dried seafood. Such a distinction is necessary because evidence is increasingly supporting that, if left unregulated, Haiwei represents a significant threat not only to the few targeted, endangered marine wildlife, but also to marine resources and ecosystems worldwide.
While the use of the phrase in literature dates as far back as the Southern Qi period (479-502AD), and its consumption has been documented across China throughout history, the current Haiwei culture is more commonly associated with Chaozhou, Shantou, Hong Kong, and other cities along China’s Southern and South-eastern coasts where historic connections to fisheries are part of cultural heritage and identity. Haiwei products are consumed for both culinary and medicinal values, and are generally considered tonic foods consumed for their alleged effectiveness in, for example, anti-aging, libido-aiding, miscarriage prevention, and haemorrhage healing.
Connecting Haiwei to conservation
The term Haiwei is not widely known to the conservation community, but conservation issues directly linked to Haiwei trade and consumption have made international headlines over the past two decades. Examples include unsustainable fishing practices of shark-finning, transnational trafficking of abalone, overexploitation of sea cucumber, and the imminent extinction faced by the vaquitas as a result of illegal fishing of the totoaba for their maws (dried swim bladders). These are all “top-of-the-range” products in the Haiwei culture known colloquially as bào shēn chì dù (鲍参翅肚—abalone, sea cucumber, shark fin, and fish maw), a phrase that has become a Chinese idiom for extravagance. At the luxury end of trade, the per-gram prices of Haiwei products are comparable to that of rhino horn and elephant ivory, and similarly considered as investment assets.
The prevalence and impact of Haiwei extend beyond political borders, and the conservation implications of Haiwei is not limited to just a few taxa. Genetic analyses and official trade statistics on fish maws in retail markets of Hong Kong and Guangzhou have identified a global trade network of over 110 countries, and a growing connection with Central American, South American, and African suppliers.
Despite an increasing awareness of, and effort to address Haiwei in marine conservation, available literature provides only a glimpse to the bigger picture. This is in part due to the scale and complexity of the Haiwei culture, where an array of marine animal parts is extensively diversified to fulfil market niches. For example, fish maws are differentiated from low-value to expensive varieties. At the high-end of the market, trade literature identifies up to 66 genera under the Sciaenidae family as “prized fish maw varieties”, yet their trade names and their sources remain unclear. This disconnect between trade knowledge and conservation knowledge implies an absence of baseline data on which to form policy and management decisions. The conservation implications of such knowledge gaps are a cause for concern. Decisions to suppress the trade of one maw variety could perceivably fuel the demand in another to fill vacant market niches. This is especially alarming considering only one species (the totoaba, Totoaba macdonaldi) of the 66 named sciaenid genera is listed under CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). Similar complex market structures have been reported for shark fins, mobulid gills, seahorses, and sea cucumbers.
Providing context for proactive conservation
Awareness of the Haiwei trade has increased since it was identified as an emerging IWT issue in 2018 as part of the Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT) Horizon Scan. Simultaneously, Haiwei-related conservation issues have been increasingly addressed at a policy level. At the 18th CITES Conference of the Parties (Geneva, 2019), two sharks and one sea cucumber—all of which are known to be harvested for the Haiwei trade—were listed under CITES Appendix II to increase trade regulations. Efforts to facilitate international cooperation to address seahorse and totoaba trafficking were also renewed. However, the overexploitation of marine wildlife for the Haiwei trade continues to decimate global biodiversity.
Our IWT horizon scan prioritised this topic as one of the top emerging issues, demonstrating the importance of addressing these knowledge gaps and the trade-conservation disconnect of marine taxa and marine ecosystems in the context of Haiwei culture. Without doing so, significant challenges to marine conservation and resource management will only continue. Although greater market research and genetic studies are beginning to bridge these gaps, the misalignment between trade and conservation knowledge persists due to a combination of cultural and language barriers, on-going product diversification and shifting trade dynamics, underpinned by the difficulties of studying and sampling high-priced, rare, and illegal products.
Greater proactive efforts are necessary to address and understand Haiwei as a conservation issue. Specific approaches proposed in the IWT Horizon Scan project (see Supplementary Material Appendix 3) include reviewing and analysing global dried seafood trade data to assess the extent and impact of trade, conducting market surveys as well as genetic studies along trade chains to supplement global trade data and maintain conservation awareness. With a better understanding of Haiwei, efforts can be made to optimise behaviour change campaigns, develop sustainable harvesting and consumption guidelines to curb overexploitation, inform enforcement agencies to assist in the implementation of trade regulations, and address policy gaps and loopholes.
With thanks to Nafeesa Esmail and Andrea Athanas for their helpful inputs into this piece.
In the belief that we need to move beyond crisis management and towards proactive measures and solutions, we conducted a horizon scan of significant, emerging issues in the global illegal wildlife trade (IWT). The resulting paper, identifying potential future risks and opportunities, and offering insights on how to respond to them, has recently been published in Conservation Letters.
Horizon scanning was initially developed to better understand future political movements and capitalise on budding business opportunities. It has been used in multiple fields, including emerging health technologies and infectious diseases, aging populations, and for other conservation-related topics, such as Myanmar forest conservation. The end goal of horizon scanning is to prevent limited resources from being misdirected, and to highlight both the costs of ignoring emerging threats and the need to implement decisions and policies to mitigate such threats before they potentially reach crisis levels.
There are many historic instances (including the current pandemic) that illuminate how ill-prepared we have been for such crises. Looking back at examples, it seems plausible that more of us could have foreseen a problem emerging if only we had been actively considering it, thereby prompting us to act to reduce future impact, ahead of time.
Can this crisis help reframe our thinking and provide a wake-up call both for the health of our global population and our planet to act more preemptively?
Top issues on the IWT horizon
We use the term ‘issues’ to refer to challenges/risks/threats that may exacerbate IWT or opportunities/advancements that may help us to tackle IWT. To come up with the list of top issues, we adapted existing horizon scanning methods, systematically examining future possibilities in an open, inclusive, and global participatory way. We used a democratic and transparent iterative process to identify and prioritise ideas from various sources, involving 150+ people across diverse backgrounds and geographies (including 38 nationalities) with a core working group of 25 individuals.
The top 3 ranked issues identified in our scan highlight China’s role as a critical player in the global IWT, a perception that has been reinforced with it being the apparent source of the coronavirus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the exact mechanism of the original virus transmission to humans remains unclear, an early link to the Wuhan wet market (which sold a range of animal products, including wildlife) has raised the profile of the IWT activity and unsanitary conditions often associated with such markets.
While global IWT policy making involves a range of decision-makers and stakeholders, efforts have often focused on enforcement, technical assistance, and capacity building. However, effective measures to counter IWT ultimately hinge on the political will of nation states; wildlife trade policy discussions need to incorporate a deeper understanding of complex market and trade dynamics (including consumer demand), as well past and future trends to be effective.
The top 20 horizon scan issues related to three different, but interconnected themes: developments in biological, information and financial technologies; changing trends in demand and information; and socio-economic and geopolitical shifts and influences (Figure 1: To find more about each specific issue, see our paper (particularly the supplementary material for their descriptions and policy relevance)).
These issues illustrate that we live in a networked, but dynamic and rapidly changing world. Understanding the associated complexities can guide us toward actions and processes that effectively address IWT. Our analysis suggests that these should be locally led, but encompass broader geopolitical and socio-economic considerations, with a focus on critical regional trade centres.
The publication of this paper comes 2 years after the project started (early 2018) and we have since seen increasing awareness of many of the top issues, previously relatively unknown, or merely not at the forefront of IWT discourses. Examples of how issues have continued to emerge are numerous – here is one:
Africa and East Asia have long been the focus of IWT priorities, but over the last few years Latin America has emerged as an underrepresented node of high IWT activity, though our understanding of the mechanisms behind increased poaching and trafficking still lag (Issue 20). The frontier of IWT in Latin America has since increased, with more attention brought forth by both the conservation community (October 2018) and global political leaders. Peru hosted the First Americas Regional Conference on the Illegal Trade in Wildlife in Lima (October 2019), during which the Lima Declaration was enacted alongside commitments and statements made to curb future regional IWT activity.
One key achievement of this project was its success in bringing together researchers and practitioners from different sectors and disciplines to amplify a topical global conversation. The ability to remotely engage dispersed groups across the world has already become more important, as we continue to adopt new ways of connecting virtually.
Crises like COVID-19 or the 2008 global financial crash have forced our society and markets to adapt and innovate. Businesses and individuals have found interesting ways to reinvent themselves, often bouncing back stronger. However, adaption and innovation are not just reserved for goods and services; they can be used to reshape our thinking as conservationists too.
This analysis can support national governments, international bodies, researchers and non-governmental organisations as they develop future strategies for IWT. It can guide greater coordination of preemptive interventions, integrated across sectors and policy arenas. We are optimistic that such future-orientated exercises will influence conservationists to actively shift their focus from responding to crises to preparing for what lies on the horizon.
Interested to know more?
Contact the authour, Nafeesa Esmail, here.
Access the full paper here.
Over the next few weeks, a series of posts on top emerging issues within the illegal wildlife trade will be shared through our ‘on the IWT horizon’ commentary series. Watch this space for:
- Rapidly expanding demand for a global supply of Haiwei (dried seafood) to China and Chinese communities worldwide by Jack Lam
- Social media influencing IWT networks and consumer behaviour by Zara Bending
- New species discoveries or descriptions affecting illegal wildlife trade of those species by Catherine Workman
- Managing wildlife trade in the context of Africa’s economic growth policies by Andrea Athanas
You can also read the CITES CoP18 policy briefing document for strategic IWT decision-making based on this IWT horizon scan.
With thanks to E.J. Milner-Gulland, Mike ‘t Sas-Rolfes, Catherine Workman and Zara Bending for their helpful inputs. And special thanks to all those who contributed to this project, without whom it wouldn’t be possible.
Originally published the UKRI website
Several of the earliest reported cases of COVID-19 were linked to a wet market in Wuhan city, China, which sold a range of fresh food produce, including wildlife. Although there is not enough evidence yet to say how the new coronavirus jumped from its original host (probably a bat) to humans, there have been previous examples of viruses originating in wild animals causing disease epidemics in people. Understanding the link between wild and domestic animals and COVID-19 is important for managing the current pandemic and future outbreaks of infectious diseases.
Several of the earliest reported cases of COVID-19 were vendors at a “wet market” in Wuhan, China. It has been reported that the virus was first transmitted from an animal host to humans at this market, though this has not yet been proven.
“Wet market” is a term used across various parts of the world, notably in China and Southeast Asia, for a food market in which individual retailers sell fresh products such as vegetables, fruits and fresh meat, providing an essential food source to many. The “wet” here is historically to distinguish from “dry markets” that sell non-perishable goods such as fabrics, electronics, grains, dried food (e.g. dried mushrooms) and household products, and also because of the use of water for cooling the produce and cleaning floors and surfaces. Chinese “wet markets” include some that sell fruits and vegetables in a setting more like a European farmer’s market, while others sell a wider array of meat and live animals, both wild and domestic, often kept in crowded and unhygienic conditions. “Wet markets” have been implicated in SARS (via civets) and H5N1 influenza (“bird flu”) via domestic poultry.
Beyond “wet markets”, a wide variety of other markets that sell live, wild animals operate across the world. The animals sold in these markets can be wild-sourced or captive-bred, for use as food, medicine, pets and ornaments, and the markets are of varying degrees of legality, biosafety, sustainability and social legitimacy. Wildlife markets range from live bird markets for poultry and pets (e.g. in Indonesia, Vietnam and Egypt), to bushmeat markets for subsistence (e.g. in Cameroon and Ghana) to Traditional Chinese Medicine markets (e.g. in China and Singapore). Markets such as these can make substantial contributions to food security and livelihoods. For example, the Chinese Academy of Engineering stated in 2016 that captive-bred wildlife sold for food in China contributed $14 billion to the economy, and employed six million people. The Wuhan market which is at the centre of the COVID-19 outbreak predominately sold seafood, along with other animal products including live, wild and domesticated species for meat.
One proposed route of transmission for COVID-19 involves bats and pangolins, although it is not known whether pangolins were being sold at the Wuhan seafood market at the time. Bats are natural reservoirs of coronaviruses; a pangolin could have been the intermediate host, although the exact route of transmission of COVID-19 to humans remains unknown. Further research is needed to be sure of how the virus got into humans, and to understand the role of wildlife and markets in transmission.
Historically, over two-thirds of zoonotic viruses (viruses that are transmitted between animals and humans) have originated in wild animals, most frequently rodents, bats and primates. The transmission of zoonotic diseases primarily occurs when there is close contact between humans and animals. Even dead animals can pass on diseases to people and other animals if their carcasses are fresh and if people consume the meat or handle the dead animals in an unhygienic way. These risks have led to calls for more stringent bio-safety rules in relation to the sale and trade of live animals, as well as calls to stop wildlife being traded in markets altogether. As a result of COVID-19, the Chinese government has now banned farming and trade of almost all terrestrial wild animals for human consumption; only a few species (such as those on the List of Genetic Resource of Livestock and Poultry) are exempt.
While there are clearly disease risks from the wildlife trade, wildlife markets are only one source of infections from animals. Human health is intricately connected to wildlife and their habitats. The destruction of natural forests brings people and wildlife into contact in a way that can promote the spread of zoonotic diseases, such as Nipah virus infection which is carried by fruit-eating bats in Asia. In addition, nearly half of all the infectious zoonotic diseases that have emerged in humans since 1940 have come directly from domestic livestock, even if they originated in wild animals. For example, the 2009-10 swine flu pandemic came from domestic pigs. International food supply chains, the movement of people globally, and unprecedented changes in pathogen life cycles due to climate change, further facilitate the conditions for emergence and spread of diseases.
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By the Oxford Martin Programme on the Illegal Wildlife Trade and the Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science, University of Oxford.
COVID-19 is causing widespread human suffering, as the most acute global public health emergency of our generation. While the origin of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID‐19 remains uncertain, several wild species (particularly bats) are known to be important hosts for this family of zoonotic diseases. More generally, there is strong evidence that zoonotic disease emergence is linked to human activities which bring wildlife, domestic animals and humans into increasingly intense contact. This includes destruction and degradation of natural areas; intensive livestock rearing; and hunting, trade and consumption of high-risk wildlife (e.g. bats and primates).
To minimise the risks of future zoonotic outbreaks, whilst also protecting wildlife, ecosystems and human well-being, we need to rebalance our relationship with nature, using an evidence-based approach to manage the risks associated with global food systems. With specific reference to zoonotic animal-origin viruses such as coronaviruses, we therefore recommend the:
- Prevention of illegal, unsustainable, unhygienic and high-stress use of domestic and wild animal species. This will improve animal welfare, support conservation and reduce public health risks. This is regardless of end-use (whether it be for food, medicine or pets).
- Support of well-regulated, sustainable and cruelty-free trade in wildlife, based on evidence that a particular trade is helping to protect wildlife and their habitats against threats whilst meeting livelihoods and food security needs.
- Limitation of destruction of natural ecosystems for agriculture, mining, infrastructure development and urbanisation, working towards halting further loss and restoring nature.
- Better management of industrial agriculture, to prevent disease outbreaks in humans and livestock, animal welfare issues, pollution of the land and watercourses, and antibiotic resistance.
In contrast to our recommendations, many conservation and animal welfare organisations are now calling for complete, long-term bans on wildlife trade and consumption, as a means to reduce the risk of future zoonotic pandemics. We recognise that trade in some wild species represents a risk to public health. However, we express concern at the dominant discourse which focusses solely on the links between zoonosis emergence and wildlife trade and caution against a blanket approach to wildlife trade regulation. Instead, we advocate for a more nuanced and evidence-based approach which could better serve both people and wildlife. Our reasons are:
- There is a need to address all the root causes of zoonotic disease emergence, as opposed to taking a narrow focus on wildlife trade. Available evidence suggests that wildlife use is one of a growing number of anthropogenic drivers, such as industrialised livestock farming (particularly in temperate regions), agricultural intensification and land use change (particularly in tropical regions, where wildlife biodiversity is high). These issues lead to increases in wildlife-livestock-human interfaces and declines in biodiversity, both of which increase disease transmission, and are further exacerbated by climate change and global supply chains (i.e. the trade and movement of people and animals). Policy interventions need to address all of these root causes if they are to be successful in reducing the transmission of zoonotic diseases globally.
- Long-term policy change should be based on sound evidence: While some organisations are claiming that wildlife trade should be banned on public health grounds, there remains no conclusive evidence about the relative impact of banning all wildlife trade in preventing the emergence of zoonotic diseases in the future. Different organisations are taking slightly different views on what “wildlife trade” is, and which elements should be banned, but the trade in wildlife is multifaceted and heterogeneous. Poorly considered blanket bans could therefore result in unintended negative consequences for both people and wildlife. Past attempts at bans on all wildlife trade and consumption across Africa following the 2013-2016 Ebola crisis resulted in a loss of trust between local communities and conservation NGOs. Other past bans were only transiently effective due to a lack of enforcement capacity and viable alternatives, and were quickly followed by a marked increase in wild meat hunting compared to hunting rates prior to the ban.
- Overly hurried interventions can inadvertently do more harm than good. Immediate crisis management responses to the COVID-19 outbreak, such as closing China’s urban wildlife markets, are warranted. However, longer-term policy change, particularly where policy interventions seek to be scalable and generalisable (e.g. across geographies and zoonoses) should not necessarily be based on extreme cases. Further information should be gathered on the public health risks of wildlife trade, and the potential perverse consequences of new laws and regulations on other aspects of public health, human well-being, and environmental sustainability. For example, banning all wildlife trade and consumption could damage the livelihoods and food security of millions of people, threaten biodiversity, and drive further land-use intensification for agricultural and livestock production. Conversely, maintaining well regulated, legal trade for species that can be safely and sustainably harvested can help to secure wildlife habitats in some areas, thereby avoiding the very land use changes that drive emergence of zoonoses.
- Global problems need international solutions. The wildlife trade can be conceptualised by people living in Europe and North America as something that other people do, which makes it easier to call for draconian action. However, wildlife is used all around the world; including game hunting for food and recreation in Europe and North America. The real issue is the way that we use natural resources as a species – whether this be our use of agricultural products such as Soy and Palm oil, our production and consumption of livestock, or our use of wildlife. We no longer mainly eat what we produce locally, and consumer decisions in affluent countries have large impacts on land use change in wild habitats on the other side of the planet. The ecological footprint of consumers in the Global North is much higher than those in the Global South. Viewing the emergence of COVID-19 as an issue that has been created ‘over there’ absolves us of the need to reevaluate our own consumption. The truth is that consumption choices in affluent countries can have huge impacts on the spread of emerging zoonotic diseases on the other side of the world.
- Conflation of issues, misinformation and opportunism. We note that the organisations calling for bans on wildlife trade are primarily conservation and animal welfare organisations. These calls can seem like opportunistic use of COVID-19 to further their own objectives, which are only tangentially related to public health. Public health, illegal wildlife trade, biodiversity conservation and animal welfare are all important issues, but they are not completely overlapping. There is a need to disentangle the relationships between these (sometimes competing) priorities and consider difficult and context-specific issues relating to sustainability and ethics, rather than calling for one-size-fits-all policies at a time when people and governments are in crisis-management mode.
- Consider the voiceless – bring the people affected to the discussion table. The loudest calls for bans on wildlife trade come from NGOs in the USA and the UK. However, the people who will be affected by these bans include indigenous groups and local communities in poorer countries who rely on the wildlife trade for their livelihoods. No policy should be made without their active, prior involvement. It is not enough to say that their needs will be considered after the fact.
If we are to protect people around the world against the emergence of further zoonotic diseases, we must learn from past experience. We must better understand the pathways to infection and the various ways in which our activities contribute to pandemic disease risk, to help ensure that policy changes are driven by evidence, and that subsequent actions are both socially just and realistic. At this time of global emergency, we need to focus on controlling the pandemic and alleviating the suffering being endured by people worldwide. Now is not the time to be calling for global bans on wildlife trade, but when the time is right a more nuanced and evidence-based approach can be taken, which will both reduce risks to public health, conserve wildlife and natural systems, and improve the welfare of domestic and wild animals.
This position statement was jointly prepared and agreed by members of the the Oxford Martin Programme on the Illegal Wildlife Trade and Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science, with particular contributions from E.J. Milner-Gulland, Hollie Booth, Lauren Coad and Stephanie Brittain. Members of the team have also written more detailed blogs on this topic, which are available here:
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