Want to prevent pandemics? Protect wild animals!

26 May 2023


Unless we change our ways, another pandemic will happen again. This is why we need to transform the way we treat wild animals, explains Born Free’s Policy team.

Landscape photo of flamingo flying over grassland.

In light of the devastating impacts of COVID-19, the 194 Member States of the World Health Organisation (WHO) agreed in December 2021 to develop a legally binding global agreement on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response. 

This new agreement will be the first legally binding international agreement designed to protect the world from future pandemics. Aided by our recently obtained official stakeholder status to the WHO, and alongside our partner organisations in the Pandemics and Animal Welfare coalition, Born Free has been actively engaging in this process.

Covid-19 has infected hundreds of millions of people and resulted in millions of deaths. However, it’s only the latest in a long line of pandemics, most of which are believed to originate in wild animals. Many currently undiscovered viruses are thought to exist in mammal and avian hosts that could trigger the next pandemic. However, it’s only when we disrupt, exploit and stress those animals that we create the conditions in which pathogens are likely to emerge, proliferate, mutate and spill over to other animals and potentially to people.

Protecting wild animals is therefore key to preventing future pandemics. Our priorities for the new agreement include: 

  • Persuading Member States to focus on ‘primary prevention’, in other words tackling the issues, including habitat destruction, wildlife trade and intensive animal agriculture, that make future pandemics more likely;
  • Ensuring the agreement adopts a holistic One Health approach recognising the intimate relationship between human health and well-being, animal health and welfare, and the health of the wider environment; and
  • Securing mechanisms to enable meaningful collaboration between experts in human, animal and environmental health and well-being.

“Tackling the root causes of pathogen spillover from animals to humans costs a fraction of responding to a pandemic once it has begun, yet as it currently stands, the draft agreement does not give sufficient priority to primary prevention”, notes veterinarian and Born Free’s Head of Policy Dr Mark Jones.

“Measures to prevent viruses and other pathogens spilling over at the human-animal-environment interface, particularly in relation to habitat degradation, wildlife trade and farming, commercial wildlife markets, and intensive animal agriculture, must be prioritised. To achieve this, the global community needs to tackle the major direct and indirect drivers of outbreaks through detailed risk analyses and with full recognition of the importance of animal health and welfare.”

In addition, transforming our relationship with animals and the wider environment is a key aspect for a successful agreement. Born Free encourages the adoption of measures to enable the most vulnerable communities to protect themselves from experiencing an outbreak in the first place.

“We believe that governments and international institutions can only achieve equity for the people most at risk – and by doing so protect us all from future pandemics – by supporting those communities in transitioning away from high-risk activities like destroying wildlife habitats and trading or trafficking in wild animals”, says Born Free’s International Policy Specialist Adeline Lerambert.

Furthermore, pandemics are One Health challenges that require collaboration between institutions and experts specialised in human health and wellbeing, animal health and welfare, wildlife conservation and environmental health. Pathways to prevent, prepare and respond to pandemics should not be the sole responsibility and burden of human health institutions. Born Free is calling for this to be more strongly articulated in the agreement.

Finally, sustainable financing will be crucial for effective implementation. Financing should be clearly tied to the implementation of effective One Health Strategies while ensuring that resources are dedicated to measures that tackle the root causes of pandemics.

As we approach the critical meeting of the World Health Assembly in May 2024 at which the Pandemic Treaty is due to be agreed, Born Free will continue to advocate for our priorities alongside our partners to influence the development of this vitally important agreement, with nothing less than human, animal and planetary health and wellbeing at stake.

What caused the Covid-19 outbreak? Humans did! Our short film Protect Them To Protect Us, narrated by our Founder Patron Dame Joanne Lumley, explains why we need to transform our relationship with the natural world to avoid future pandemics.

Image: (c) Peter Ndungu