Overexploitation is a major threat to biodiversity. It threatens many species and one of the reasons I got into conservation science was to help solve this problem. I conduct research on pangolins, which are threatened by trade-driven harvest, and I have seen first-hand pangolins being killed in restaurants so I am acutely aware of what wildlife trade can entail. To me such events also signify how much remains unknown about wildlife trade, including consumer tastes and preferences for many species, and the size and structure of markets for wildlife products, and what particular characteristics might mean for conservation interventions to ensure that where trade occurs it is ecologically sustainable. Thankfully, there has been an increase in research on wildlife trade in the last decade that is helping to fill these knowledge gaps. I expect this will continue in the future, especially given purported links between wildlife trade and the emergence of COVID-19.
Sunda pangolin Manis javanica which is threatened by overexploitation. (c) Dan Challender/Save Vietnam’s Wildlife
In this context, accurately characterising wildlife use and trade, including whether it poses a threat to species—and if so the severity of the threat—is important to informing conservation actions and policy at various scales. In an article published this week in Conservation Letters, I and a group of co-authors discuss three issues that we identified in recent publications on wildlife trade. These involve mischaracterising wildlife trade and the threat that it may pose to species, and misrepresenting policy instruments and how they work. As an example, one of the papers we highlight misinterpreted data from The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and assumed that species in trade are thereby “threatened by trade”. Other studies concluded that species are likely negatively affected by trade when there is a lack of evidence that this is the case.
This is concerning because such research may inform the adoption of policies which restrict trade in particular species despite it not being a threat to them. Such policies may also reduce or remove benefits to people along wildlife supply chains and undermine the contribution that particular markets make to achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Of course, equally concerning would be research that overlooks the potential detrimental impact of harvest and use on species where it does a pose a threat to species. Based on this we call for researchers to take great care when analysing and interpreting data on wildlife use and trade and making associated conservation recommendations. For example, we suggest that researchers pay particular attention to the language they use and consult the resources available that accompany wildlife trade-related databases and/or consult with database managers or other experts to ensure that data are being interpreted in the correct manner when conducting analysis. We also make related recommendations for journal editors, database managers, policymakers and civil society organisations.
Reticulated python Malayopython reticulatus which can be traded in large volumes without trade posing a threat to the survival of the species in the wild. (c) Dan Natusch
I expect that the article may frustrate some researchers—and I have therefore been apprehensive about it being published—but the motivation for the article was not to openly criticise other researchers who work on wildlife trade. Rather, my co-authors and I are genuinely concerned that research which mischaracterises wildlife trade could inadvertently result in measures that do more harm than good for biodiversity conservation and people who benefit from wildlife trade, many of which may have few alternative livelihood options. The reality is that wildlife trade research can be challenging because it often involves complex datasets while at the same time, we often lack data on many species (e.g., population parameters), which makes evaluating the impact of harvest and trade difficult. I suspect that most researchers have probably made—or will at some point in their careers make—mistakes in their research. I know I have. I am hopeful that our article will help nudge things in the right direction for wildlife trade research. I also hope it will not lead to distracting arguments which so often characterize the wildlife trade discourse, for example the simplification of issues to anti-trade vs. pro-trade perspectives, which does not reflect the reality or complexity of wildlife trade.
The conservation of biodiversity requires robust science to underpin policies and interventions, which requires high-quality research and more collaboration, rather than conflict, between researchers. I’m confident that I speak for my co-authors as well when I say that we are ready and eager to collaborate to meet this challenge regarding wildlife trade research.
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The impact of wild meat trade bans on people and conservation
In recognition of the importance of wild meat for food security and livelihoods, global conservation policy has focused on the need for sustainable use of species hunted for wild meat, and many experts agree that using wild species sustainably may still be the best way to save them. Yet, following the covid-19 outbreak, we are seeing a growing number of calls to ban the trade and consumption of wildlife globally.
The covid-19 outbreak has shown us that there is clearly a need to readdress our balance with nature. But, what lessons can we learn from past attempts at banning wild meat, and what are the possible realities for both conservation and for those who depend on wild meat for food and income?
While some of the proposed bans recognize the important role that wild meat plays for the food security and nutrition of indigenous peoples and local communities globally, wild meat also constitutes an important financial backstop across Africa, in particular during low seasons or when agricultural commodity prices fluctuate. The Ebola crisis and subsequent ban on the trade of wild meat markets across West and Central Africa resulted in unemployment for thousands of women, the primary traders of wild meat. The potentially unequal effects such bans could have on the financial security of different groups of people must be properly considered. Livelihood alternatives must be co-designed and led by those who will be affected in order to mitigate such effects and ensure alternatives are locally relevant.
There is a common assumption that people in rural areas eat wild meat because they have no other alternatives. The Darwin Initiative project “Why Eat Wild Meat”, looks to understand individual level differences in wild meat preferences, hunting, and consumption and the reasons for doing so, in rural villages in southeastern Cameroon. The project is finding that yes, people eat wild meat because it is readily available to them, but also, and more importantly, because they like the taste. As such, it’s important that conservationists keen to devise protein alternative projects first understand why people eat and hunt wild meat. Alternatives are best when locally conceived, and when projects are co-designed, to ensure that subsequent alternatives meet local needs and have longevity.
It is also often assumed that livestock or poultry present culturally viable alternatives to wild meat. However, the “Why Eat Wild Meat” study identified greater concerns by some local people in rural Cameroon over the health of domestic animals than they did over many species hunted for wild meat. This is due in part to several outbreaks of disease relating to domestic animals, including most recently avian influenza, and personal experiences of livestock or poultry falling ill. Additionally, animals such as chickens and goats are kept for sale or for large celebrations in these villages, and are not routinely consumed for subsistence purposes. As such, encouraging a shift away from hunting and towards a dependence on livestock and poultry would require a deep cultural shift for some rural communities.
The impact of a shift to livestock or poultry raises concerns for many conservationists about deforestation; researchers estimate that if livestock such as cattle were to replace wild meat in the Congo Basin, 25 million hectares of forest would be converted to pastureland. Realistically, pigs or chickens would be seen as more viable replacements to wild meat, but again this would require an estimated additional 4.5 million tons of pigs or chickens, again unlikely to happen any time soon in the Congo Basin. We must consider the potential adverse impacts that calling for a shift to livestock could have, and whether such calls are realistic in the timeframe required.
We need local understanding
Much of the recent work on wild meat and disease has focussed on the international convention scale. If we are to change behaviours to protect against the emergence of further zoonotic diseases and encourage a shift away from any unsustainable or illegal behaviours, we must also have a local understanding of why people make the choices they do, as well as the pathways of trade and transmission, to help ensure that policy changes regarding wild meat are driven by evidence, and that subsequent actions are locally relevant and realistic. As the “Why Eat Wild Meat” project is discovering, the reasons behind wild meat hunting and consumption, the types of biodiversity involved in trade and the pathways for disease transition are complex and varied. So then, should be the proposed effective ways to tackle the spread of new diseases such as covid-19.
A woman prepares duiker meat with chili sauce in Cameroon. Photo: Stephanie Brittain
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The early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic have been linked to a “wet” market in Wuhan, in the Hubei province of eastern China. Wet markets are common in Asia, Africa and elsewhere, selling fresh fruit and vegetables, poultry, fresh meat and live animals, including wildlife. Reports initially indicated that the coronavirus which causes COVID-19 may have been transmitted to people from wildlife at this wet market because of unsanitary conditions.
The pandemic has led to some wildlife conservation organisations to call for blanket bans on wildlife trade on public health grounds. They include bans on commercial trade in wildlife for human consumption and the closure of these markets. More extreme calls from more than 200 organisations include ending the keeping, breeding, domestication and use of all wildlife, which also covers traditional medicine.
But blanket bans are unlikely to benefit people or wildlife, and are unfeasible because they overlook the complexity of the wildlife trade. The COVID-19 outbreak should not be used opportunistically to prescribe global wildlife trade policy. A more appropriate response would be to improve wildlife trade regulation with a direct focus on human health.
Despite the way it is often presented, wildlife trade involves far more than animals harvested in tropical regions and sold in China. It includes species from land, freshwater and marine habitats, including fisheries, in production systems ranging from wild harvesting to captive breeding. It takes place at local and international levels, includes legal and illegal, sustainable and unsustainable components, and is measurable in billions of dollars annually.
Bans are seldom the answer
Unquestionably, wildlife trade regulations require review in response to COVID-19 for public health reasons. However, while bans may appear to be a logical solution, their impact on public health cannot be assumed to be positive. They could also do more harm than good for biodiversity. Typically, prohibition does not deter all traders in marketplaces. This would mean that trade in some products would likely continue illegally. Traders would be motivated by financial profits, with an increased risk of trade being controlled by organised crime.
Bans may not stigmatise consumption either, especially where products are socially desirable, meaning consumer demand for many products would persist. This is a public health concern because, unregulated, such trade would likely be clandestine and, if unsanitary, could pose the risk of transmitting disease from animals to humans. Bans, especially where they remove legal supply options, such as captive breeding, could raise perceptions of scarcity, and drive up black market prices and increase incentives for poaching. This could accelerate the exploitation and extinction of species in the wild.
The outcome for wildlife economies would also be uncertain. For example, the wildlife “breeding economy” in China is estimated to involve 14 million people and be worth more than US$74 billion annually. The fate of animals under human care and the people employed in these industries would require consideration. In China, bamboo rat and badger farmers are to be compensated and given grants for new businesses following the closure of almost 3,000 farms in response to COVID-19.
To be effective, bans would need to be largely in step with local social norms and well enforced. But this is unrealistic in many parts of the world where law enforcement is cripplingly under-resourced in terms of technology and manpower. Local people may also challenge the legitimacy of any bans. Requiring agencies to enforce comprehensive bans in these circumstances would most likely overwhelm them.
Even where there are strong laws and enforcement, implementation is challenging and illegal trade still occurs frequently, such as the harvesting and trafficking of the European eel in Europe. It is also unlikely that law enforcement would receive the financial investment necessary to enforce bans in the long term, due to political constraints on spending and other more urgent priorities.
Better regulated trade
Banning all wildlife trade is a knee-jerk and potentially self-defeating measure. A more appropriate response would be improving regulation of wildlife markets, especially those involving live animals. This should include full consideration of public health and animal welfare concerns to ensure there is low risk of future animal-to-human disease outbreaks.
This could be achieved by focusing on highest-risk species and improving conditions along supply chains and in markets, such as health and safety and sanitation, and regular animal health checks. These practices could draw on existing standards that apply to regulations for transporting live animals by air.
Like bans, any new or revised regulations would require enforcement. But approaches such as “smart regulation” could be used to aid the process. This could ensure that new measures are culturally appropriate and incentivise local people, traders, buyers and law enforcement agencies to comply. Devising regulations in this way would mean they are more likely to be effective, rather than undermined which a blanket ban would do.
Rushing to indiscriminately ban all wildlife trade in response to COVID-19 would not eradicate the risk of animal-to-human disease outbreaks. It could also have a severe impact on livelihoods and biodiversity. Improved regulations that focus on health, if implemented well, would avoid these effects while ensuring a low risk of future disease outbreaks.
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Arguably, it is our strained relationship with nature that got us in to this mess. The evidence is fairly conclusive that the Sars-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 first made its way in to a human vector in a wet market in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China. The original animal reservoir for the virus was probably bats. Available evidence suggests the virus first passed from bats to an unconfirmed intermediary host (maybe pangolins) and then from the intermediary to humans (Fig. 1), probably because someone ate the intermediary host.
So, what does this mean for our relationship with nature?
It reminds us that nature is not caring, kind and simply here for our benefit. In certain socio-ecological systems, nature has the capacity to be terrifying and destructive to humans, just as we can reap destruction on nature.
In turn, this may exacerbate risks to human health due to increased food insecurity, increased interfaces between animal agriculture and undisturbed ecosystems (more of step 1), and potential increases in illegal and unregulated wildlife trade (more of step 2).
Fig. 2. The factors that increase the risk of zoonoses are complex and inter-twined, changing one aspect of our human-nature relationship will inevitably impact another. Source: UNEP.
Whether to increase regulation of wildlife markets in response to COVID-19 is an open question and requires examining the likely impact of different policies on public health, biodiversity, animal welfare and broader socio-economic issues. Moreover, it requires a critical analysis of the proximate vs. ultimate causes of zoonotic disease emergence. Other factors such as urbanization, population density, socio-economic status and agriculture play major significant roles in zoonotic disease emergence. Interestingly, while many are quick to point the finger at China’s eating habits in this instance, the majority of human infectious diseases emerged for the first time in northerly latitudes, with a hotspot in Europe. As such, regulation of wildlife markets is not a panacea for preventing emergence of zoonoses, it is one piece in the complex puzzle of our human-nature relationship (Fig. 2).
It also reminds us that while nature can be cruel, it can also provide solace during times of distress. With an estimated 2.9 billion people in some form of lockdown, we may not be able to interact with people, but at least we can find solitude in nature (at least we can in the UK, during our ‘one exercise per day’ allowance), and appreciate the simple things in life (Fig. 3). This may provide an opportunity to reconnect with our values, reflect on the sustainability of our choices, and transition towards new ways to live, work and organise the global economy.
Fig. 3. Reconnecting with nature can help us to cope with social isolation, and reflect on what’s important
Our relationship with nature got us in to this mess, but it can also get us out of it. On an individual level, for those of us who are lucky enough to be fit and healthy, we can disconnect from the hubbub of our work lives and reconnect with ourselves and nature. On a societal level, we can learn lessons from this tragedy, to reset our relationship with nature, and find creative ways to live more happy and sustainable lives, which can benefit public health, nature and our ever inter-twined socio-ecological system.
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On February 24th 2020, China’s top legislature adopted a decision to “thoroughly ban the illegal trading of wildlife and eliminate the consumption of wild animals to safeguard people’s lives and health.” The decision has binding force and it took effect on the same day as its promulgation, i.e., February 24th [5,6].
Consumption of terrestrial wild animals for edible uses prohibited
As COVID-19 is assumed to have close links with the consumption of wild animals, the new decision prohibits the eating of terrestrial wild animals, including those that are bred or reared in captivity. Hunting, trading and transporting terrestrial wild animals for the purpose of consumption is also prohibited .
This is a big move. Previously, only the 402 species on the List of Wild Animals Under State Priority Conservation were banned from consumption as wild meat in China . However, this list is outdated and does not correspond to the conservation status of some species . Consumption of other wild terrestrial animals was permitted, subject to obtaining appropriate certificates (e.g., hunting, breeding, quarantine, trade) from the government. However, this certification system was sometimes poorly implemented. Buying a certificate and using it for “laundering” of wild-caught animals was possible .
Which species which are currently consumed are not included in these new measures?
Although this new ban was quickly celebrated by the media and some in the international conservation community, there are several nuances and exceptions that must be clarified.
Aquatic wildlife, expect these banned from edible use by the Wildlife Protection Law (2018), is exempt, because the National People’s Congress (NPC) views “fishing as a natural resource and an important agricultural product, as well as a common international practise” . This means, for example, sea cucumbers and other widely consumed species will continue to be traded under the same rules as before.
Wild plants are not included in the ban.
Farmed amphibians and reptiles on the List of National Key Protected Aquatic Wild Animals for Farming and the List of National Key Protected Economic Aquatic Animals and Plants Resources, such as the giant salamander, softshell turtle and crocodile, currently can still be consumed, until new regulations from the Ministry of Agriculture are annouced.
Farmed, terrestrial animals on the List of Genetic Resource of Livestock and Poultry can now be traded for food consumption. A publicly available version of this list can be found in a report to UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, and includes various breeds of pig, chicken, duck, goose, special poultry (e.g., ostrich), cattle, sheep, goat, horse, donkey, rabbit and deer . Mink and raccoon dog are also on the list, possibly due to demand for their pelts. Previously, some species not in the list could be farmed (e.g., civets and bamboo rats) but farming these species is now illegal, if they are to be consumed as food. The Chinese government plans to revise this list and the changes would impact certain species and industries.
What about non-edible uses?
Non-edible use of wild terrestrial animals, such as scientific research, medicinal use, and display, are still regulated by existing laws, such as the Wildlife Protection Law (2018) and the Traditional Chinese Medicine Law (2016) . For example, it remains legal to use processed pangolin scales from a certificated source, or bear bile from legal farms for medical purposes, or stockpiled saiga horn. This means that a substantial number of species of conservation concern are unaffected by the ban.
What about the illegal trade?
Some wildlife trade is already illegal (e.g., tiger, ivory) in China, and the Chinese government has announced it will clamp down further on such trade with “aggravated punishment”, suggesting stronger penalties will be used for illegal wildlife trade. In the existing Criminal Law and its interpretation (2014), if the circumstances are especially serious, life imprisonment or death shall be sentenced .
Further details are not currently available but should become clear in forthcoming legislation. Since the rise of COVID-19, the Chinese government has investigated over 600 cases of wildlife crime , and hopefully, this greater focus on law enforcement will become the norm.
What about the Chinese public’s views?
Winners and losers
People in the farmed wild animal industry could face severe economic losses as a result of this new legislation. Previously, the farming of certain wildlife species was encouraged by the government to help alleviate poverty . The wildlife farming industry is estimated to have created employment for more than 14 million people and worth over £56 billion, with pelt production (e.g., mink, raccoon dog, fox) representing 74.8% and food consumption involving species such as the giant salamander, frog and blue peacock, 24% . The National People’s Congress spokesman stated that local governments should guide these farmers towards other industries and provide compensation for their losses . Meanwhile, what happens to the captive-bred animals remains uncertain, with potential implications for animal welfare.
It has taken so much human suffering to bring attention to this issue. However, the speed with which this new decision has been taken offers hope that the lessons of COVID-19 will be learned.
Special thanks to Melissa Arias, Dan Challender, E.J. Milner-Gulland, Xuesong Han, Amy Hinsley, Xilin Jiang, Zhi Lu, Xiao Mao, Jessica Philips, Michael ’t Sas-Rolfes, Terry Townshend, Lingyun Xiao, for their valuable comments and edits to this blog.
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 野生动物保护名录，一把刻度模糊的卡尺 Wild animal protection list, a ruler with blurred numbers. Shanshui Conservation Center. /2020-02-28. http://www.shanshui.org/information/1906/.
 养殖技术成熟，就可以开放市场了吗？Can the market be opened if farming techniques are mature? Shanshui Conservation Center. /2020-02-28. https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/HuguwEKlm35qO80sWpCCwg.
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 甲鱼等还能吃吗？农业农村部：将进一步明确养殖两栖爬行动物禁食范围 Can softshell turtles still be consumed? Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs: will announce further clarification on farmed reptiles and amphibians. 2020/2020-02-29.http://www.xinhuanet.com/2020-02/27/c_1125634919.htm
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