The deadly coronavirus outbreak, which has killed over 600 people and infected thousands more, may have been transmitted from bats to humans via pangolins, according to new research.
An as-yet-unpublished study by Chinese scientists has pinpointed these endangered scaly anteaters – the world’s most trafficked mammal – as “the most likely intermediate host” of the virus.
If verified, the findings could have enormous implications for the future of these endearing and intriguing animals.
With leadership from China, global authorities are working hard to contain the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus. The Chinese government has already imposed a temporary ban on all wildlife trade in Wuhan, effective from 26th January.
In light of the outbreak, state-controlled Chinese media outlets have condemned the practice of wild meat consumption and called for permanent bans on wildlife trade. Thousands of Chinese citizens are reported to be echoing these calls on social media channels.
On 3rd February, the most powerful committee within the Chinese Communist Party issued a statement confirming that it will “strengthen market supervision, resolutely ban and severely crack down on illegal wildlife markets and trade, and control major public health risks from the source.”
Welcome though this announcement may be, the sad truth is that China is now paying a heavy price for an outbreak that was both predictable and preventable.
In 2002, a strain of coronavirus from wild civets infected humans at a wildlife market in Guangdong province in southern China. The ensuing epidemic of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) resulted in more than 8,000 reported cases across 26 countries, and caused almost 800 deaths.
Masked palm civet. Consumption of wild civets was implicated in the transmission of SARS to humans. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI
Almost two decades later, it is a case of history repeating. This latest coronavirus, which emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan, is hypothesised to have been transmitted to humans at a ‘wet’ wildlife market (where live and dead wild animals are sold).
Many serious human infections have originated in wild animals. These include influenza, plague, smallpox, rabies, typhus, yellow fever and AIDS.
In some instances, after being transmitted to humans, a virus will mutate and become a human-specific infection. In other cases, a virus will remain largely unchanged and remain only in the initial host species, until there is an opportunity to transfer to humans.
These opportunities are increasing. Growing global travel, climatic changes, urbanisation and other forms of human encroachment on wildlife habitats are providing more opportunities for so-called zoonotic infections to emerge. As the coronavirus outbreaks suggest, wildlife markets are providing the perfect breeding grounds.
Humans have hunted and eaten wild species for thousands of years. But in recent decades, particularly across the tropics, hunting has increased so dramatically that many species are now facing local and global extinction. Moreover, rather than being consumed close to where they are hunted, many wild species are being transported far afield to feed demand in other countries. Today’s industrial-scale illegal trade in wildlife across international borders involves a huge range of species from primates to pangolins, wild cattle to civets.
These wild animals – dead or alive, and often in poor and unhygienic conditions – are often thrown together and transported long distances. As in the market at the centre of the Wuhan outbreak, these animals are then stored in close proximity to each other – and to shoppers and vendors – in their destination markets. This provides the perfect environment for viral infections to cross species barriers. Illegal trade in wild species not only threatens the survival of endangered wildlife, but also poses a very real risk to human health.
This is a global issue, rather than a problem unique to China, but the country is unarguably at the epicentre of the current crisis. How it responds to this latest coronavirus outbreak could well determine the future of the world’s beleaguered pangolin populations and of the myriad other species threatened by illegal trade.
Juvenile Sunda pangolin, one of eight pangolin species threatened by illegal trade. Credit: Zaharil Dzulkafly
The crucial point, worth re-emphasising here, is that pangolins – if indeed they turn out to be the vector of the outbreak – are not the villains of the piece. There is a genuine danger that the knee-jerk reaction will be to demonise an animal that is an unwitting accomplice in a human-induced crisis. The real crime is being committed by the profiteers who are hoovering pangolins from the wild in industrial quantities and driving them towards extinction. And the solution is to give these extraordinary and irreplaceable creatures the protection they desperately need, rather than making them the scaly scapegoats.
To reduce risks posed to human health and to prevent species extinction, Fauna & Flora International (FFI) is calling on governments globally to take stronger action to stop illegal and unregulated wildlife trade. A worldwide clampdown on the marketing and consumption of illegal wildlife products – including all eight species of pangolin – is urgently needed. It goes without saying that demand reduction will also be critical to long-term success, in order to ensure that a permanent ban does not merely displace trade elsewhere and push transactions underground.
Learn more about how FFI is working to combat illegal wildlife trade and ensure the long-term survival of pangolins…
Pangolins are in desperate trouble, but we still have time to turn it around. Please donate now to help support the investigations bringing down the illicit trade.
An exponential rise in demand for products such as ivory and rhino horn is decimating biodiversity and threatening species with extinction. Learn more about our approach to combat the illegal trade.
Pangolins are the only mammals to be covered with large, protective scales. Sadly, this does not keep them safe from poachers - they are now thought to be one of the world's most trafficked animals.