Reducing Zoonotic Disease Risk from Wildlife Trade


Leaves create a black circle

Zoonotic diseases are a stark reminder of how people and nature are interconnected. From Forest to Market: How Pandemics are Fueled by Nature Loss visualizes how the increased risk of serious outbreaks is driven by human activities that encroach unsustainably into wild places and by the sales or consumption of certain wild animals.

Over 60% of all emerging infectious diseases worldwide are of zoonotic origin – meaning they are transmitted from animals to humans. Zoonoses are responsible for the most recent pandemics in modern history, including HIV, Ebola, SARS, MERS and, most recently, COVID-19. Deforestation, particularly for new roads and expanding agriculture, as well as livestock production and Illegal or unregulated wildlife trade, brings humans into close contact with wildlife and increases the risk of zoonotic transmission.

The global illegal wildlife trade is a lucrative business valued at up to USD $23 billion annually. Often operated by international criminal syndicates, the trafficking of wild animals and their products moves much like drugs and weapons. While the poaching of elephants and tigers for their parts has garnered worldwide attention, countless other species that can have high zoonotic disease risk are similarly exploited for meat consumption or as exotic pets.

In unregulated wildlife markets, domestic livestock and live wildlife of various species are cramped in close quarters. These markets often disregard health and sanitary protocols and are typically found in densely populated, urban areas – all creating a staging ground for the transmission of novel diseases.

Reducing wildlife consumption to prevent pandemics

In live wildlife markets, animals brought from disparate places are often crammed together in stacks of cramped cages.
Live animals in cages at market

Why It Matters

  • Preventing the next spillover

    “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.

  • Undermining responsible trade

    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.

  • Compromising national security

    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.

  • Disrupting supply chains

    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 impact communities and economies

    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. 

What WWF Is Doing

A black toucan and small tan monkey tied to a cage by their legs at a market

Tackling illegal wildlife trade and its associated disease risks requires transboundary collaboration, stronger law enforcement, and legal frameworks that recognize wildlife crime as a serious offense. It also requires integration with human health approaches, farming, and wildlife health systems.

Convening key stakeholders to reduce supply of high-risk species

Recent zoonotic disease outbreaks including SARS and COVID-19, show the particularly devastating economic impact that pandemics have on the transport industry. In 2020, early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, the International Air Transport Association estimated that the airline industry would lose over USD $350 billion. At the same time, the transport sector, particularly airlines, is the primary way live animals are smuggled from the wilderness to market. WWF works alongside transport and logistics companies, industry associations, data analytics specialists, and government agencies as part of the USAID ROUTES Partnership (Reducing Opportunities for Unlawful Transport of Endangered Species) to integrate and implement wildlife policies, industry standards, awareness, and capacity building.

Wildlife are found in physical marketplaces across the globe and, increasingly, under threat from virtual markets on the internet. Through advances in technology and connectivity plus a largely unregulated online market, criminals find buyers globally and sell and ship wild meat and live animals that circumvent proper veterinary and quarantine protocols. WWF is working with the world’s largest e-commerce and social media companies through the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online to make sure illegal sales, shipping, and trade on online marketplaces do not threaten species or spur the next pandemic.

illustration of wildlife including elephant, tiger and two rhinos

Reducing demand and consumption of high-risk species

The demand for wild meat and live animals is often tied to deeply embedded social perceptions and traditions. Targeted behavior change efforts are powerful tools in addressing high-disease-risk and unsustainable wildlife trade and in persuading consumers to make better choices. WWF is addressing the root of the problem by focusing first on wildlife consumption for luxury and status reasons. More research and insights are needed to understand how to shift high-disease-risk wildlife consumption for subsistence needs to ensure the protein needs of vulnerable populations are met.

We conducted a general public survey in Hong Kong SAR, Japan, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam in 2020 to gauge public sentiment and awareness of the linkages between COVID-19 and wildlife trade, as well as the level of support for the closure of illegal and unregulated wildlife markets. 93% of respondents stated that they would support efforts by their governments to close all illegal and unregulated markets selling wild animals. More than a year after the emergence of COVID-19, WWF worked with GlobeScan to conduct a follow-up survey in 2021 with over 6,500 people in the United States, China, Vietnam, Thailand, and Myanmar. This survey assessed how the effects of the pandemic have affected sentiments about and support for what individuals, companies, and governments need to do to prevent future pandemics. Three-quarters of all respondents remain extremely or very worried about the current pandemic, and a majority of the public surveyed remain deeply worried about future pandemics, strongly supporting government action that tackles the root causes, like high-risk wildlife trade and deforestation, in order to prevent similar outbreaks from reoccurring.

By assessing the awareness of the connection between zoonoses and wildlife trade and consumer motivations, WWF can better inform governments and health ministries on effective legislation and design campaigns to target people most likely to engage in interactions that could pose a public health risk. 

Advising US policy: Facilitating cooperation between health and conservation

WWF continues to push for a holistic government approach to develop actions that prevent future global pandemics. We encourage the US government and other nations to close high-risk wildlife markets, where they cannot be effectively regulated, and invest in demand reduction efforts. The US should reauthorize and update the END Wildlife Trafficking Act to find new solutions to end wildlife trafficking and reduce the risks of zoonotic diseases. WWF is advising Congress and US government to increase funding to the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the US Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to increase capacity to combat illegal wildlife trade and zoonotic risks in the US and support efforts to tackle high-risk markets and wildlife trafficking internationally.