People want wildlife markets to close — governments should listen
Recently, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the NIH, called for the shutdown of so-called “wet markets” like the one in China where the outbreak of COVID-19 likely originated. Fortunately, Dr. Fauci’s plea is likely to be well-received in Asian nations where high-risk markets exist, based on a new public opinion survey of 5,000 people in the region.
The survey, commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and conducted by GlobeScan in early March, found near universal support for closing illegal and unregulated markets.
Governments should seize this opportunity by joining with public health experts, conservationists and the public to close high-risk wildlife markets — and in the process, eliminate a grave threat to both people and nature.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 75 percent of new or emerging infectious diseases in people are zoonotic — diseases that originate with animals and jump the species barrier to people. Among these are deadly viruses such as SARS, MERS, Ebola and COVID-19, which has already claimed the lives of more than 183,000 people, including more than 46,000 Americans.
In this context, the global wildlife trade effectively acts as a superhighway for spreading zoonotic diseases. This is especially true when it comes to markets that cater to a high volume of customers and sell wild meat for human consumption — including bats and rodents, both of which are popular food items in parts of Asia, Africa and other regions, and are known for high pathogen transmission rates.
Many of the animals and animal products sold in these high-risk markets are legal. But the illegal wildlife trade — worth billions of dollars annually — adds to the danger. Rarer and more exotic species like pangolins and bears are more likely to be illegal and hail from more remote origins. Because these species are illegally sourced, they are more likely to circumvent sanitary checks and other regulations. And because they come from more remote locations, they may also be more likely to carry novel pathogens that have not yet reached human populations, and for which we have no known treatment or vaccine.
The current crisis has highlighted the devastating impacts that trade in high-risk wildlife can have on human health and economic security, and people are taking notice. The new survey by GlobeScan found that 93 percent of respondents in four areas with active wildlife markets — Hong Kong SAR, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam — support the closure of high-risk, illegal and unregulated markets that sell wild animals and wild animal parts for human consumption. Among those who said they were likely to buy wildlife products in the future, nearly half said that they would nevertheless abide by a ban. This suggests that government action can serve as an effective deterrent.
Some governments are already enacting significant changes. Last month, the Chinese government announced a ban on the trade in wildlife for human consumption. Since then, Vietnam has committed to doing the same. Now, with the widespread public support found in this survey, other governments in the region should follow suit.
But they can’t do it alone. The high-risk wildlife trade is a global phenomenon and it requires a global concerted response. First, governments need to focus on shutting down markets in high density urban areas that sell risky wildlife and wildlife products intended for human consumption.
Second, they need to scale up efforts to combat the illegal wildlife trade, including aggressive enforcement of existing laws and international agreements, comprehensive sanitary regulations and inspections, robust transboundary cooperation and public awareness campaigns to reduce consumer demand.
Third, they need to understand and mitigate the negative effects that closing wildlife markets may have on rural communities and Indigenous Peoples who depend on the harvest of wild animals for consumption, and help find alternate sources of protein where needed. Likewise, they need to help secure alternative livelihoods for people in these communities whose income relies on the commercial supply of wild source protein.
The U.S. can play a critical leadership role by ensuring a whole of government approach to preventing future global pandemics. This includes injecting significant new funding into government programs to eliminate high-risk and illegal wildlife trade and strengthening legislation such as the END Wildlife Trafficking Act to tackle wildlife trafficking and prevent harmful zoonotic pathogens from entering the country through wildlife imports.
Of course, the single greatest priority must be protecting the public from the spread of COVID-19 and restoring the global economy. At the same time, our leaders have a responsibility to examine the root causes of this crisis and take bold steps to prevent future catastrophe.
We won’t know the full human and economic cost of this global pandemic for some time, but the lesson is clear: it’s time to end the high-risk wildlife trade and shut down the infectious disease superhighway for good.
Ginette Hemley is senior vice president for wildlife conservation at WWF. She oversees WWF’s programs to secure the future in the wild for the world’s most endangered and iconic species.