TNRC Blog Illegal wildlife markets, zoonotic disease transfer and corruption

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Targeting Natural Resource Corruption

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Illegal wildlife markets, zoonotic disease transfer and corruption—Connections and what the global community must do about it

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is greater international willingness to address illegal wildlife markets, especially those involving live animals. But to respond to this and future pandemics effectively, systems thinking, and a greater understanding of drivers and inter-sectoral approaches will be vital. This post captures insights on the connections between illegal wildlife markets, zoonotic disease transfer and corruption contributed by experts in the fields of wildlife ecology, public health, environment, development, transnational crime and wildlife trade at a TNRC virtual panel on 23 June 2020. Experts presented learning and approaches that global practitioners should consider to protect natural resources, public health and support good governance. The panel was attended virtually by practitioners based in more than thirty countries. A recording is above, and a PDF of the slides from the event can be downloaded here.

Key Takeaways

  • Corruption is one of many drivers that facilitate environmental degradation, illicit and illegal activities that contribute to zoonotic disease transmission.
  • Humans make this transmission possible when they bring animals in close proximity in markets. But simply banning high-risk wildlife markets is not the answer since this may drive trade underground and strengthen the role of organized crime and corruption in markets.
  • Understanding the complex history, impacts and causes of zoonotic transmission is vital in the design of systems-oriented responses that combat environmental degradation, address and prevent pandemics.
  • If regulatory responses are to be effective, corruption vulnerability needs to be explicitly addressed in risk assessment and mitigation.

What are the main ‘drivers’ of pandemics like Covid-19, and how do wider governance and corruption risks factor into global responses—including those of the conservation community?

There are three main drivers of Emerging Infectious Diseases (EIDs): wildlife exploitation, industrialization of agriculture and deforestation. All of these drivers are aggravated by weak governance and corruption. In addition, they interact in ways that can result in unintended consequences. A particular concern is the expected escalation and impact of large-scale infrastructure development over the next decades as countries seek to re-build their economies and provide employment in the wake of Covid-19. Such projects not only lead to widespread deforestation, but easily become sinkholes of corruption.

As we look for solutions, we need to take a systems-oriented approach, analyzing corruption risks, strengthening public trust in institutions and between institutions, and developing evidence-based policies with a focus on transparency.

--Nik Sekhran, Chief Conservation Officer, World Wildlife Fund

Learn more: Beyond boundaries: Insights into emerging zoonotic diseases, nature, and human well-being

How are zoonotic diseases transmitted and why are trans-disciplinary approaches essential to addressing and preventing pandemics?

A trans-disciplinary approach and study of the health of the entire ecosystem, and not just one part of it at a time, is essential. Climate change is an important—and often overlooked—driver, and zoonotic transmission often requires a long period of interaction between species. Humans make this transmission possible by bringing animals together in markets, where they are under stress and placed in close proximity to each other. But the answer is not simply to ban high-risk wildlife markets since this will drive them underground and strengthen the role of organized crime and corruption.

The answer requires the understanding of the interconnectedness of these issues, and recognizing that food supply issues, poverty and corruption need to be addressed together, and not in isolation. Behavior change and prevention are also essential strategies in curbing illicit wildlife trade.

--Dr A. Alonso Aguirre, Chair and Professor, Department of Environmental Science and Policy, George Mason University

Learn more: Illicit Wildlife Trade, Wet Markets and COVID-19: Preventing Future Pandemics

What are key challenges and remedies to wildlife trade and zoonotic disease and where does corruption fit in?

Wildlife trade is a diverse global business, with complicated patterns of supply and demand, and includes both wild and farmed species. Some of the supply chains and markets are local; others are globalized. Pathways can be legal or illegal – in fact past zoonotic disease outbreaks often derived from legal wildlife markets and farms. But corruption facilitates illegal wildlife trade and blurs the boundaries between legal and illegal markets. As with other regulated valuable trade sectors, illicit business thrives on the boundaries of and outside the law. Corruption enables participants to bypass regulations, thereby intensifying health risks.

If regulatory responses are to be effective, corruption vulnerability needs to be explicitly addressed in risk assessment and mitigation. Health concerns, biodiversity and governance all need to be addressed. The response needs to be targeted to the specific sector and country, but there are many good practices involving increased transparency, such as seafood traceability. We need to build on voluntary actions, including work with the private sector, transport groups, internet etc. Most importantly, we need to work at a scale that is commensurate with the problem.

--Steve Broad, Executive Director, TRAFFIC

Learn more: Wildlife trade, COVID-19, and Zoonotic Disease Risks

How will policing need to evolve post-pandemic to serve the public and environmental interest?

It is time for a radical re-think of how we address wildlife crime. Who will police wildlife markets and food markets? Not Customs, already overwhelmed in the countries of origin and focused on revenue gathering. What will our post-pandemic targets be? Health? Smuggling? Terrorism? Biodiversity? Do we have the legal instruments to support them? There is political will to fight wildlife trafficking, if we judge by international conventions and politicians’ speeches, but it doesn’t translate into action because of corruption.

Much of the illicit trade, crime and trafficking can exist because it is facilitated by corruption. This kind of corruption needs to be investigated as a crime by law enforcement in general, not just by specialized anti-corruption investigators. They need to leverage the existing anti-corruption legislation, which has powerful tools, including accessing bank accounts and financial records, intercepting communications, offering witness protections. And they need to target the corrupters, not just those who have been corrupted. But enforcement alone won’t work. It is important to understand the patronage networks, beliefs in traditional medicine and other factors underlying the trade.

--John Sellar, OBE, Retired Chief of Enforcement for CITES

Learn more: Wildlife trafficking: Time for a radical rethink

What other take-aways should practitioners in the conservation and natural resource management community draw?

Corruption plays a key role in the problem of zoonotic disease transmission, which has become a threat to global health and biodiversity. We need to take a multi-disciplinary, integrated approach, rather than focusing just on law enforcement or environment, and work together with the global health community.

Covid-19 is currently changing the risk calculus about wildlife consumption, but these changes may not last. We need to promote behavior change in consumption patterns, while recognizing that protein consumption needs remain important in many countries.

There is political will in many countries to fight wildlife trafficking. But it doesn’t translate into effective action, because of corruption.

We do have some good practices that we can draw from to help institutions regain public trust. These include greater use of transparency, digitizing applications and registrations where possible, and publishing more data.

Zoonotic transmission of disease is is a global problem, not one that is confined to a single continent or region. It requires a change of consciousness for all of us, as citizens of the world, to understand that the way we treat the environment affects the health and safety of all of us.

One of the few benefits of the Covid-19 crisis is that it has taught us how to better reach out to the world around us.

--Dr. Louise Shelley, Director, TraCCC, Professor, Schar School of Policy, GMU

Learn more: Illicit Wildlife Trade, Wet Markets and COVID-19: Preventing Future Pandemics

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Image attribution: © / Jen Guyton / WWF; © Brian J. Skerry / National Geographic Stock / WWF; © Georgina Goodwin / Shoot The Earth / WWF-UK; © Hkun Lat / WWF-Aus