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WWF works to sustain the natural world for the benefit of people and wildlife, collaborating with partners from local to global levels in nearly 100 countries.
“Spillover” events occur when an animal population introduces a novel disease to a new host. Spillovers can occur when humans directly consume wild, undercooked and/or diseased meat, or through direct interaction with wildlife. Markets that are unsanitary and unregulated—with stressed animals shedding viruses in crowded spaces—create ideal conditions for potential disease spillovers from wildlife to people. They are also a window to larger issues of uncontrolled wildlife exploitation. Experts believe that, without interventions, future pandemics driven by wildlife trade and consumption in high-risk markets will likely spring up again, spread more rapidly, and have a greater impact on human health, societies, and economies.
Not all wildlife trade is illegal. Tens of thousands of animal and plant species are caught or harvested from the wild and then sold legally as food, pets, ornamental plants, leather, tourist ornaments, or medicine. However, wildlife trafficking undermines legal, sustainable wildlife trade. Wildlife trade escalates into a crisis when an increasing proportion is illegal and unsustainable, especially when harmful viruses spread across unregulated, illicit supply chains. The illegal trade of species poses a large zoonotic risk because of a high likelihood that a wild-caught animal may carry high viral loads and is more likely to bypass veterinary protocols and market controls. Many animals that are considered high risk for zoonotic spillover to people also are traded illegally or without regulation, such as many rodent and bat species.
The criminal networks that underpin wildlife trafficking have a wide international reach, corrupting systems and undermining efforts to protect natural resources. These groups can destabilize security nationally and regionally and may even fund civil unrest and or terrorist groups.
Zoonotic disease can be spread between animals and humans at any point in the supply chain from the source to retail market, including at consolidation points such as warehousing, before reaching the consumer. Even if high-risk wildlife markets are regulated or closed, illegal or unregulated wildlife inventory may still flow into holding warehouses, before finding a new retail outlet or buyer. This can create ideal conditions for disease spillover with animals taken from the wild all over the world being housed together in cramped conditions. Legitimate facilitators of transport and sale, such as the transport sector, online trade platforms and exotic pet trade, are most vulnerable to being exploited by wildlife traffickers, that use their services to move and sell illicit animals and products that can trigger the spread of zoonotic disease.
Pandemics have disproportionately higher impacts on communities, livelihoods, local economies, natural resource harvesting, and food supply. These diseases may affect already-vulnerable communities with potentially severe social, economic, and political impacts.