This week a friend reflected sadly ‘nothing will ever be the same again.’ I don’t believe it should be. A prime example of what needs to change post-pandemic is the trade in wild animals. This trade, especially in mammals and birds in certain high-risk contexts, increases the risk of new infectious diseases emerging in humans. This has happened before, is of course happening now, will happen more frequently, and will happen again if we do not transform our relationship with nature, which we must do as a critical investment in the future health of ourselves and our planet.

This is why Fauna & Flora International (FFI) is calling for immediate action to:

  • Halt the commercial trade in wild mammals and birds (including from captive-breeding facilities) for human consumption, from and within high-risk areas. This excludes legal harvest of wild meat species for household consumption and for limited local trade amongst those who currently have no alternative.

Followed by:

  • Review and reform of commercial legal trade in wild animals (including those from captive-breeding facilities) to substantially reduce the risk of zoonotic disease emergence and transmission to humans.
  • Sustained protection and restoration of ecosystems and biodiversity as a critical investment in the future health of ourselves and our planet.

You can read FFI’s full position and recommendations here.

Wildlife trade and COVID 19 – what’s the link?

Most new infectious diseases emerge when pathogens transfer from animals into humans. The majority – including SARS, MERS7 and Ebola – originate in wild animals. Critically, this is occurring more often due to increased contact between wild animals and people, linked to changes such as agricultural expansion, urbanisation, and the expanding trade in wild animals.

It is thought that SARS-CoV-2, which causes Covid-19, was transmitted from a wild intermediary host (the exact species is currently undetermined) to a human in a marketplace in Wuhan.

A huge variety of wild animals are traded globally for meat, traditional medicines, and pets. They are harvested legally and illegally from the wild, and some are farmed in commercial captive facilities.

They are often transported over long distances, in large numbers, in close proximity, in poor health, and from multiple countries of origin. All along this trade chain, from source to end markets, there is potential for diseases to spread between species – including to humans and domestic livestock.

The risk of transfer to humans is greater from certain taxa, particularly mammals and birds. This risk is also higher in tropical areas with high mammal diversity, and where there is rapid urban growth, high human density, and rapid land-use changes. The increased movement of people and animals and more complex trade chains also raise the risks.

Rainforest converted to agriculture. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI

Legal wildlife trade provides food, employment and incentives

Millions of the most vulnerable, poor and marginalised people are dependent on hunting wild species for subsistence and income. Banning markets selling wild meat, or even local-level trade and exchange in wild animals, would threaten their food security. It would also risk promoting black-market trade, making it harder to manage the risks.

The safe and sustainable hunting of fast-reproducing species (such as small ungulates and rodents) for consumption, and very limited trade by local households in the rural tropics who currently depend on wild meat, is possible and does not need to conflict with protecting wildlife. To safeguard local access to this protein source and make sustainability possible, commercial trade – domestic and international – would need to end.

Ultimately, however, to avert future pandemics, reducing extreme poverty and dependence on biodiversity for food, medicine, income and energy security is an essential part of reducing the many human-driven stresses leading to the erosion of biodiversity.

Whilst regulation in many areas and for many species needs drastic improvement, a diverse range of animals, plants and fish are legally harvested from the wild and legally traded around the globe.

You may be surprised at the number of animal species harvested from the wild that feature in your daily lives: the tuna in our sandwiches, wild salmon, caviar, venison, wild boar and grouse in upmarket restaurants, coral and ornamental fish in home aquaria, accessories made from crocodile or python skin and pets such as tortoises and lizards. The European Union is the top global importer by value of many wild animal commodities including caviar, reptile skins and live reptiles.

From harvest, processing, transport and marketing, a huge number of people rely on this trade for their livelihoods. And the benefits can also provide incentives to sustainably manage land uses that supports wildlife. Finding alternative funding mechanisms to maintain thriving ecosystems that support human life needs to be a key part of transforming our relationship with nature.

Wildlife trade needs deep reform. However, it is vital that the social, environmental and economic benefits of trade are also taken into account in targeted policy responses. This will reduce the likelihood of formerly legal trade being driven ‘underground’ where it is more difficult to address and manage.

Protecting biodiversity, protecting ourselves

Climate change and biodiversity loss are increasing the rate of infectious disease outbreaks, facilitated by agricultural expansion, industrial-scale intensive farming, road building, logging and mining in remote areas. We need healthy ecosystems – for the air we breathe, the healthy soils to grow food, the genetic diversity for crops and livestock, and to provide resilience against climate change. And thriving biodiversity keeps ecosystems healthy – from essential pollinators such as bats through to seed-dispersing primates.

The response to the Covid-19 pandemic shows that massive collective action at scale is possible when governments decide it is necessary. The global community must now show the same determination to protect and restore biodiversity and tackle climate change to ensure the future health of humans, wildlife and our planet.