Covid-19 should be a warning to prevent illegal animal trade, say experts

Conservationists call for ban on pet markets to reduce risk of future pandemics

A pangolin looks for food in Johannesburg, South Africa. Often caught in parts of Africa and Asia, the anteater-like animals are smuggled mostly to China and Southeast Asia, where their meat is considered a delicacy and scales are used in traditional medicine. AP
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The illegal trade of wild animals and exotic pet markets is putting the world at risk of further pandemics like Covid-19, experts have warned.

The number of interceptions of smuggled animals, living and dead, at airports worldwide has doubled since 2015, according to the US Agency for International Development. This was put down to both increased demand and better detection at airports.

Last year, customs officials across the globe recorded the highest number of wildlife seizures ever recorded with 400 incidents picked-up in air transport.

A report by US Aid revealed that China had the most instances of wildlife trafficking by air, followed by Ethiopia, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam.

Covid-19 can be seen as a wake-up call for humans to reflect on our relationship with animals

As details of the coronavirus began to emerge in January, experts at the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention said the outbreak was highly relevant to the wild animal trade.

“Even though this particular outbreak originated in Wuhan, it could have happened anywhere else where wild animals are brought into close contact with people,” said Elsayed Mohamed, Mena regional director at the International Fund for Animal Welfare, based in Dubai.

“Animal markets exist in many places across the world, not just in China.

“The wild pet trade of hundreds of thousands of specimens of lesser-known species from Asia, Africa and Latin America into Europe and the US is putting animal and public health at risk.”

In response to the outbreak, IFAW distributed guidance to each Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) representative across the Middle East and North Africa, including the UAE, calling for action to be taken against wildlife markets.

Documents called for legislation regulating the import, transportation and export of wild animals to be reviewed, as well as the ownership, breeding, trade and consumption of animals.

1,350kg of illegal contraband, including rhino horns and elephant tusks, were seized in Dubai in April last year. Some was painted black to fool customs officers. Courtesy: Dubai Police
1,350kg of illegal contraband, including rhino horns and elephant tusks, were seized in Dubai in April last year. Some was painted black to fool customs officers. Courtesy: Dubai Police

It also recommended closing animal markets as a precautionary measure to maintain public health.

Sars-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes Covid-19, is thought to have originated from an animal market where a variety of species and protected wildlife were illegally sold.

The Wuhan Huanan animal market sold live peacocks, porcupines, rats, foxes, crocodiles, wolf cubs, turtles, snakes, frogs and wild pigs.

Stress of captivity weakens the animals’ immune systems, and creates an environment where mutating viruses can jump from one species to another.

“Covid-19 can be seen as a wake-up call for humans to reflect on our relationship with animals, and better control how we interact with them,” said Mr Mohamed, who backed widespread public education about animal consumption and ownership.

“Animals are not to blame for outbreaks of viruses, it is humans who need to change their consumption and destructive behaviour.

“Reducing their habitat is bringing wildlife closer to human populations, with these dual stressors contributing to the opportunity for another zoonotic outbreak.”

Both the HIV/Aids and Ebola viruses are believed to have originated from the hunting and killing of wild animals for bush meat in Africa.

Similar wildlife markets seen in Asia are now commonly trading throughout Bangladesh, India, Latin America and Africa.

Sellers of wild-caught and captive-bred animals are often guilty of increasing risk by selling to a largely unsuspecting public, said Dr Clifford Warwick, a fellow of the UK’s Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics.

Bovine tuberculosis has been documented among wild lions and animals raised in captivity, while reptiles such as snakes and others are known sources of salmonella.

Dr Warwick said many animals sold at ‘pet markets’ across North America and Europe are ‘cold-blooded ectotherms’ such as invertebrates, fishes, amphibians and reptiles, so typically undergo no form of quarantine.

“These animals can be caught from the wild in an overseas epidemic hot spot then sold at a pet market within days – complete with a raft of viruses, bacteria and other microscopic infectious agents,” he said.

The US Centres for Disease Control said three out of every four new or emerging infectious diseases originate in animals.

Many of the species seized in air transport – including live birds, live reptiles and mammals – are high-risk carriers of zoonotic diseases and may end up in illegal or unregulated markets around the world.

Coronavirus lockdowns around the world have also led to a decline in law enforcement in remote conservation areas, sparking an increase in illegal hunting.

These animals can be caught from the wild in an overseas epidemic hotspot then sold at a pet market within days

The latest report by Reduce the Opportunities for Unlawful Transport of Endangered Species (Routes), part of the USAID, said the UAE, Qatar, and Turkey are all major transit countries for wildlife moving between Africa, Europe and Asia.

The UAE has taken many steps to clamp down on wildlife trafficking, including the criminalisation of owning exotic animals.

Airline staff have been trained to identify forged documents used to smuggle animals and the IFAW is working with government departments to teach employees how to spot signs of trafficking.

“Faced with the current health crisis caused by the novel Covid-19 virus, the world is unfortunately grappling with the danger and economic turmoil that zoonotic diseases can pose,” said Michelle Owen, a Routes conservationist.

“Trafficked wildlife present particular risks in this context.

“By training staff to detect and report wildlife trafficking and working with enforcement agencies to intercept wildlife traffickers, airports and airlines can help strengthen their operations and can play a role in reducing the risk of future outbreaks.”