Covid-19, the strain of coronavirus responsible for the pandemic, is thought to have originated from wildlife. There has been much speculation over whether snakes, bats or pangolins were the sources of the original human cases in Wuhan, China. However, importantly, whichever species are ultimately confirmed as the agents that transmitted the virus to people, wildlife isn’t to blame for the current pandemic.
Covid-19 is an example of a zoonotic disease – one that can spread from animals to humans. Many infectious agents have the potential to be zoonotic. The World Health Organisation estimates that 60% of all human infectious diseases recognised so far are zoonoses, and about 75% of emerging infectious diseases that have affected people over the past three decades originated from wild animals.
Recent human zoonotic epidemics include Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Ebola, Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and HIV.
SARS was considered a serious global epidemic, but although some jurisdictions temporarily closed down wildlife markets at the time, they quickly reopened once the epidemic had subsided. Critically, the lessons we should have learned then were ignored and soon forgotten.
The impact of SARS has already been dwarfed by that of covid-19.
The reasons why zoonoses are becoming so problematic in today’s world lie in the way humans interact with and exploit wildlife. Relentless development in pursuit of economic growth has carved inroads into wild habitats, granting easy access to poachers, traders and traffickers and facilitating the collection and export of wildlife. Ill-advised expansion of human settlements irrevocably leads to increasing contact, and often conflict, with wildlife. Rapidly expanding human populations are placing massive demands on wildlife for nutritional and medicinal uses. Increasing disposable incomes among a burgeoning middle class have resulted in the commodification of wild animals as exotic foods, traditional medicines, health tonics, pets, high-end gifts, status symbols or investments.
Trade in wild animals, both legal and illegal, has grown exponentially. Wild animals are collected, farmed, transported, exported and traded in huge numbers, more often than not enduring appalling conditions. Crowding, stress and injury among such animals provide the perfect environment for pathogens to spread and mutate, and their close proximity to people when they are traded and sold creates the opportunity for human transmission.
What may once have been small-scale subsistence use of wildlife has become commercialised on a massive scale, boosted by an unfettered global communications and travel infrastructure, with dire consequences for conservation, animal welfare and human health.
Several international conventions, institutions and conservation professionals continue to promote the idea of sustainable use of and trade in wildlife, as a means of giving monetary value to wild animals, thereby incentivising their protection. However, when the potential costs of such trade are factored in, in terms of wildlife decline, the scale of animal suffering, and the impact of pandemics such as COVID-19 on human lives and the global economy, the whole concept of sustainability clearly needs to be re-thought.
More immediately, the knee-jerk reaction from some has been a call for the extermination of animals that are perceived as a risk. We are already seeing reports from China of people calling for bat roosts to be destroyed. Pangolins, could be next on the target list. Destroying bat roosts or persecuting pangolins could make things considerably worse as the balance of the natural world is further disrupted.
In 2015, Bill Gates warned that we needed to prepare for a global pandemic and called for planning to be put in place. Last year, eminent scientists from across the world identified the need for transformative changes in our relationship with nature. Wet markets with their vast array of wild animals with which people would not normally interact directly in the wild, certainly increase the possibility of harmful pathogens jumping between them. The commercial capture, ranching, farming, trade and consumption of wildlife in all its forms, with its dire consequences for biodiversity, animal welfare, and human health, must end.
However, we need to dig deeper still and reset our fundamental relationship with the natural world, rethink our place in it, and treat our planet and all its inhabitants with a great deal more respect, for its sake and for ours.
Once covid-19 is hopefully behind us, returning to business as usual cannot be an option.