COVID-19 and Wildlife Trade: Perspectives and Proposed Actions

July 9, 2020


COVID-19, a disease that emerged in late 2019 linked to a novel coronavirus, has caused a worldwide health pandemic. Connections to the wildlife trade as the likely source of the virus have spotlighted the devastating impacts this trade can have on human health and economies. The World Health Organization has determined that COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, meaning it originated from an animal. Other zoonotic diseases to date have included SARS, Ebola, Bird Flu, and MERS (transmitted from mammals and birds). Its exact origins are still unknown, but COVID-19 is suspected to have originated in bats and may have jumped to humans via an intermediary wild species in a China wildlife market.

Recognizing the significant threat posed by illegal, unregulated, and high-risk wildlife markets, the Government of China has taken emergency measures to close their wildlife markets and ban the consumption of wildlife for food. But the threat of viral transmission and pandemic spread is not just an issue for China. Many countries have wildlife markets that are high-risk, particularly in Southeast Asia and parts of Africa. It will take a concerted global effort to mitigate these risks. Reducing threats and the potential for pandemic sources from wildlife will require shutting down high-risk markets, strengthening law enforcement efforts and reducing consumer demand for key wildlife products, while recognizing the legitimate protein needs of the rural poor that are often met by the harvest of wild animals.

This is a pivotal moment to build a safer future for people and the planet. Now is the time for transformative action to protect natural ecosystems in order to reduce the risk of future pandemics and build towards nature positive, carbon neutral, sustainable and just societies.

Protecting people from threats posed by zoonotic diseases requires us to protect the wellbeing of our planet. It is more important than ever not to backtrack on environmental progress and to prevent further encroachment on nature to protect our future health and livelihoods.

Preventing future pandemics

The path to prevention of future pandemics lies in a holistic approach to conserving nature across the globe. Although we cannot always foresee and prevent these diseases, we can act to heal our relationship with nature and reduce the risk of future pandemics. Specifically, action is needed in five areas:

    1. Eliminating high-risk wildlife trade, markets, high risk human to wildlife contact and consumption;
    2. Implementing conservation measures to address environmental change and habitat loss, including deforestation, as habitat degradation and loss is correlated with zoonotic and communicable disease spillover;
    3. Improving the management of livestock to reduce zoonotic disease transmission from wildlife into agricultural and food systems;
    4. Ensuring the nutritional and dietary needs of the rural poor are safely met, especially where communities rely on wild species for protein; and
    5. Implementing large-scale behavior change efforts to eliminate demand for and consumption of high-risk wildlife.

Addressing high-risk wildlife trade and markets

WWF is ready to contribute, building on decades of experience, and specifically to address the following immediate priorities:

  • Shut down high-risk markets and trade in high-risk species, particularly markets in densely populated urban areas selling wildlife for human consumption and other especially dangerous situations, and ensuring effective enforcement is in place.
  • Cracking down on the illegal and unregulated wildlife trade that typically does not undergo food health and veterinary checks and increases the risk of zoonoses.;
  • Stop the online sale of illegally sourced live animals and high-zoonotic-risk live animals and products, and the spread of misinformation online that promote retaliatory actions against wildlife viewed as the cause of COVID-19 ;
  • Reduce demand for wildlife products, particularly those for human consumption associated with high-risk markets and taxa;
  • Understand and mitigate the negative effects that closing high-risk wildlife markets or removal of high-risk wildlife from trade and consumption may have on the rural poor, especially Indigenous Peoples and local communities.

WWF supports the actions of the Government of China in closing markets that sell wildlife for human consumption and urges other countries to quickly adopt similar regulations to reduce zoonotic disease risks. This may require a hard look at wildlife trade policy and enforcement, and WWF has offered its technical expertise and field capacity.

Public opinion polling

WWF commissioned the GlobeScan market research firm to conduct a survey among the general public in Hong Kong SAR, Japan, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam to gauge public sentiment on the issue in early March 2020, as COVID-19 was beginning to sweep across Asia. The survey measured support for the closure of illegal and unregulated wildlife markets within the context of the COVID-19 global pandemic. These markets were chosen since they are important Asian links to wildlife trade, and four of them (except Japan) have active illegal and unregulated markets selling wildlife for human consumption and other uses. GlobeScan interviewed 5,000 respondents (i.e., 1000 respondents from each of the five markets) and found that 93% of respondents in the four regions with active wildlife markets would support efforts by their governments and health ministries to close all illegal and unregulated markets selling wild animals.

Convening key stakeholders

To address high-risk wildlife trade and markets, WWF is also building connections with preeminent wildlife health, zoonotic disease, and public health experts for joint action, including a scientist sign-on letter from experts in this space calling for the closure of high-risk wildlife markets to prevent the next pandemic.

We are also mobilizing the public and private sectors to join the call. For example, we are working with the transport sector to help prevent future pandemics by building in both preventative measures that will help reduce smuggling of wildlife and measures for better regulation of the transport of potentially risky animals and their products. WWF will also continue to work with partners to drive permanent change via high-risk wildlife market closures, strong enforcement in both physical and online markets, increased reporting of risky wildlife sales by global tech users, and evidence-based consumer behavior change approaches.

Action needed at the global level

The COVID-19 crisis demonstrates that systemic changes must be made to address the environmental drivers of pandemics.

Robust action across disciplines is paramount to curtail future pandemics and requires concerted commitment from policymakers, conservationists, scientists, and health experts. In particular, urgent steps are needed by relevant authorities, private sector and civil society to:

  • Stopping illegal, unregulated and high-risk wildlife trade and consumption, and enforcing hygienic and safe practices across markets and restaurants
  • Stopping land conversion, deforestation and fragmentation across natural ecosystems, while sustainably feeding a growing global population
  • Building a new relationship between people and nature through a sustainable and just economic recovery. Experts and leaders should focus on addressing immediate health and economic needs. By helping local communities manage their wildlife sustainably, we can take a big step toward securing a healthy future for people and nature.

Actions the United States can take

While many governments must play a role, the US has an opportunity to provide critical support, strategic insights, tools and resources in this effort. Steps should be considered to:

  • Ensure a whole-of-government approach to the development of protocols and actions to prevent future global pandemics, including the possible institution of a US government interagency Zoonotic Disease Task Force, in collaboration with existing international working groups and other nations;
  • Prioritize action to shut down high-risk wildlife markets and reduce demand for high risk wildlife and products via US government high-level diplomacy with other nations;
  • Scale-up efforts to combat high-risk wildlife trade and reduce zoonotic disease transmission by increasing funding for US government programs to eliminate illegal and unsustainable wildlife trade; reduce consumption of risky wildlife and wildlife products; prevent the destruction of wildlife habitat and biodiversity; and help local communities in countries of origin address zoonotic disease transmission and secure safe and diversified sources of food and protein;
  • Reauthorize and update the END Wildlife Trafficking Act to reflect the role that wildlife trafficking plays in the emergence of highly infectious diseases, including potential future pandemics, and take steps through legislation and Administrative action to prevent high-risk taxa and harmful zoonotic pathogens from entering the United States;
  • Significantly increase funding to US Government agencies on the front lines of efforts to prevent high-risk wildlife trade within and into the United States, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) Division of Law Enforcement (wildlife inspectors and special agents) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), including increasing the number of attachés and inspectors stationed in key countries to help tackle illegal wildlife trade and identify high-risk markets.

There are many vital actions needed to secure a future for nature, people, our economies, and health, but reducing the immediate threat of market-based viral transmission potential and protecting impoverished communities from the worst impacts of the current virus threat are part of a first phase of action. The subsequent phase for the longer-term health and prosperity of humanity will take a major shift in how we think about and maintain the living planet around us. As nature is lost and disrupted, the likelihood of pandemics and other disease outbreaks increases. Protecting nature will help prevent future pandemics and is therefore preventative healthcare, with greater global security and economic stability.

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