Wild meat consumption leads to increased risk of zoonotic diseases: UN report

Wild meat consumption leads to increased risk of zoonotic diseases: UN report
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The capture of wild animals for domestic consumption not only poses a threat to protected migratory species but also significantly increases the risk of zoonotic diseases like COVID-19, according to a United Nations report released Wednesday.

Hunting such animals for consumption within national borders is taking a toll on most terrestrial species protected under the U.N.’s Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), a news release accompanying the study said.

The report, published by CMS and the U.N. Environment Program, also found strong evidence linking “wild meat taking and consumption” to zoonotic diseases like the coronavirus that are transmitted from animals to humans. 

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“They’re kept in horrible cages where they’re stressed and suffering from trauma, and so their immune systems are suppressed — you almost couldn’t design a better way of encouraging pathogens, viruses, bacteria, parasites, to jump species,” Ian Redmond, tropical field biologist and ambassador for CMS, said at a virtual media briefing on the report.

Of the 105 wild migratory species examined, the authors found that 47 of 67 hunted species are used for wild meat consumption. 

While most global attention to the practice of “wildlife taking” has focused on international trade, the report said the taking of protected species for wild meat consumption is driven by domestic trade. Of the 27 species used for meat consumption on the International Union for Conservation’s 99-species Red List, the authors found that 10 species were traded nationally and only two were traded internationally.

“This report indicates for the first time a clear and urgent need to focus on domestic use of protected migratory species of wild animals, across their range,” CMS Executive Secretary Amy Fraenkel said in a statement. “We need to ensure that domestic laws and enforcement efforts are able to tackle this major threat to CMS species.” 

The report also identified 60 zoonotic viral pathogens hosted by the 105 migratory species studied. Wild meat taking and consumption, the authors said, is “the direct and causative agent for the spill-over into humans for Monkeypox virus, SARS, Sudan Ebola virus and Zaire Ebola virus.” 

And with human infrastructure and economic activities encroaching on wildlife habitats, the authors warned that wild meat taking has become much more accessible, increasing the risk of spreading such diseases to humans.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that the overexploitation of nature comes at a heavy cost,” Inger Andersen, UNEP executive director, said in a statement. “We urgently need to depart from business-as-usual. In so doing, we can save many species from the brink of extinction and protect ourselves from future outbreaks of zoonotic diseases.”

The U.S. intelligence community this year said the origins of COVID-19 remain unclear, though several agencies had a low degree of confidence that the disease stemmed from zoonotic transmission.

The U.N. report said hunted animals used the most for wild meat consumption include three gorilla subspecies: Western Lowland, Gravers and Cross River. While the wild meat of other carnivores and elephant species are also consumed, the authors said it is often impossible to separate the impact of wild meat hunting from trophy hunting or human-wildlife conflict. 

The authors also warned that wild meat will increasingly become “a luxury item,” noting that the straw-colored bat in west and central Africa and the chimpanzee in Cameroon and Nigeria are now readily available in urban markets, due to improved transportation, financial incentives and the accessibility of firearms.

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Redmond said such practices are unsustainable, and that the report shows “we’re not doing enough to prevent that.”

The authors recommended that national governments pay greater attention to domestic use and trade of protected species, while reviewing national hunting regulations. They also suggested increasing capacity for monitoring and enforcement, as well as identifying the factors that contribute to illegal and unsustainable wildlife use for domestic consumption. 

Robert Nasi, director-general of the Center for International Forestry Research, stressed the importance of giving people a viable alternative. In many places, he said, wild meat from migratory species and other sources is the only revenue source for families that need to purchase essential goods. One alternative, both Nasi and Redmond suggested, is by bringing monetary value to specific species.

“Some people see the recognition of the ecosystem services provided by those species in their natural habitat might be a way out of poverty — if the world were to pay for that,” Redmond said.

Fraenkel, the CMS executive secretary, emphasized that the study was only looking at migratory wildlife in decline, and that hunting might remain a viable option for other populations, if it’s done in a sustainable fashion.

“We need to find alternative nutrition and make sure that if they’re taking, the taking is legal and sustainable — that’s the bottom line,” Fraenkel said at the press briefing.