Coronavirus shows exploiting wildlife poses risks to human health

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As the death toll mounts and millions of us are confined to our homes by COVID-19, it’s hard to ignore how connected we are to one another. But this tragedy also highlights how tied we are to wildlife, the likely source of the pandemic. 

Some experts suggest the spread of the virus from wildlife to humans came from a “wet market” in China where live animals are purchased and slaughtered. It may have originated from a bat or an illegally trafficked scaly mammal called a pangolin — or both. It should be noted that a direct link has not been established.  

But this proximity between people and wildlife (or sometimes domestic animals) has been shown to lead to 70 percent of zoonotic diseases. Indeed, scientists in China repeatedly warned the world about the coronavirus risks of wildlife markets. 

The solution couldn’t be clearer: one crucial way to reduce disease risk is to curb wildlife exploitation. China, to its credit, slapped a moratorium on live markets and a temporary trade ban earlier this year. But much stronger, broader action is needed around the planet. 

Here in the United States, as Congress considers pouring a trillion dollars into fighting COVID-19’s economic fallout, it should also consider this proposal: putting 1 percent of that public money toward reducing the risk of future pandemics by creating jobs to curb wildlife trade and preserve wildlife habitat. 

Wildlife trade isn’t the only cause of this dangerous problem. Human destruction of and infringement into animal habitat also increase disease risk. Together, these practices have helped spread truly terrifying zoonotic diseases. Ebola, for example, infected people as they entered pristine primate habitat and sought gorillas or chimpanzees – for trade, food or both. 

Let’s face another possibility: a live market in China may have birthed this novel coronavirus. But taking over wildlife habitat and consuming wildlife products is a global phenomenon; the U.S. has to be honest about its contribution. 

We are one of the world’s top importers of wildlife, consuming an estimated 20 percent of the global wildlife market. Pandemics have begun in our borders, like the 2003 monkeypox outbreak stemming from U.S. imports of small mammals that spread to pets, and we reported the first cases of swine flu — H1N1 — in 2009.

We can’t point fingers or continue the horrific history of marrying pandemics to racism. Now is the time for cooperation and compassion — and that compassion has to extend to wildlife. Culls of pangolins, bats, or other wildlife aren’t the solution, especially as we face an unprecedented extinction crisis. 

Last May, more than 150 experts warned that we’ll lose a million species in the coming decades unless we change business as usual. While our global conversion of land and exploitation of wildlife contribute to pandemic risk, they’re also the greatest drivers of the extinction crisis. 

Yet we’ve continued to overexploit wildlife and destroy the wild. Now, as our planet is gripped by a pandemic likely stemming from wildlife trade and consumption, we need bold policy shifts that will protect both people and wild animals. The U.S. has also historically been a leader in global conservation. Now is the time to transform our wildlife and habitat protection efforts.

It shouldn’t have taken the coronavirus crisis to show we need to act. In the last 40 years, the worst human pandemics and epidemicsHIV, SARS-CoV, avian influenza, swine influenza, Ebola virus and Zika virus — all stemmed from trading and consuming animals and destroying their habitat

But the new pandemic is a vivid reminder that humans are part of the web of life — and its destruction threatens our own well-being. 

We need to stop business as usual and halt the loss of wild places. We should think about what we put on our plates, the pets we buy, and other wildlife-related products we consume. 

We must also push our government to add law enforcement staff and inspectors at our ports of entry and build global capacity to combat the wildlife trade, protect habitat and fight the extinction crisis.  

Right now, as we bail ourselves out of this mess we created, we also need to care for the wild. Let’s dedicate 1 percent of our bailout to curbing the wildlife trade and protecting wildlife and wild places. Consider it a minimal down payment on our future. 

Tanya Sanerib is international program legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity.Z

Tags China Coronavirus COVID-19 COVID19 Endangered animals United States wildlife Wildlife trade zoonotic

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