The rate at which wild animals are disappearing from Earth is alarming with nearly 52% of the world’s wildlife having been wiped out of existence over the past 40 years. The standard rate of species extinction has accelerated to about 1,000 times faster than normal. This is mainly due to livestock production, deforestation, habitat loss, and the illegal wildlife trade.
Conservation groups from the 2019 report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Ecosystem Services (IPBES) called on world leaders to take action to protect vulnerable and endangered species from the illegal wildlife trade at a time when biodiversity "is declining faster than at any time in human history.” The report found that some of the world’s most endangered and vulnerable animals are being trafficked in record numbers across the world.
The Illegal Wildlife Trade
The illegal wildlife trade is the fourth most lucrative illegal trade in the world right after drugs, human trafficking, and the arms trade. Most of the transactions are happening in Vietnam. In fact, the report found that the country’s "out-of-control, illegal wildlife trade" has helped drive demand globally. According to Aljazeera, an English language website for Aljazeera Magazine, Vietnam is associated with more than 600 seizures related to the illegal wildlife trade.
The EIA report showed that this includes a minimum of 105.72 tonnes of ivory, 1.69 tonnes of rhinoceros horn, the bodies and scales of 65,510 pangolins and the skins, bones and other products from a minimum of 228 tigers. These are either trafficked from Africa and other parts of Asia for Vietnamese consumption or transit into China, Myanmar, and Laos.
A 2016 report by the World Economic Forum, an independent international organization committed to improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic, and other leaders of society to shape global, regional, and industry agendas, showed that the global illegal wildlife trade generates between $7 billion and $23 billion in illicit revenue every year. The trade can involve a range of criminal activities such as trafficking, forgery, bribes, and use of shell companies.
A Public Health Issue
A considerable percentage of the illegal wildlife trade is intended for human consumption. Much of the consumption of wild meat and wildlife products is motivated by traditional beliefs in the unproven medicinal properties of these products. Recent urban myths also believe that wild meat is inherently healthier than farmed meat. These explain why there’s been an increasing demand for wild meat in the market.
Unfortunately, the consumption of wild meat poses a high risk of infectious diseases for humans. These diseases can spread across national borders at alarming speeds and can escalate into global epidemic events, affecting millions of people. This is proven by the recent pandemic, COVID-19, which has infected more than a million across the world. According to The Conversation, a network of not-for-profit media outlets that publish news stories written by academics and researchers, about 75% of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic such as the Coronavirus, Nipah, H1N1, H5N1, HIV, and Ebola. Scientists suggest degraded habitats may encourage more rapid evolutionary processes and diversification of diseases since pathogens spread easily to livestock and humans.
COVID-19, which belongs to a family of coronaviruses commonly found in bats, is suspected to have passed through a mammal, perhaps pangolins – the most-trafficked animal on the planet – before jumping to humans. The disease was first reported in Wuhan, China, an important hub in the lucrative trade in wildlife. It is believed that the virus originated in a market in which a variety of animal-derived products and meats are widely available, including peacocks, porcupines, bats, and rats.
As said, this isn’t the first time this has happened. According to the UN Environment, the global champion for the environment with programmes focusing on sustainable development, climate, biodiversity and more, previous reports found that the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome was transmitted from civet cats to humans, while the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome was passed from dromedary camels to humans. “Therefore, as a general rule, the consumption of raw or undercooked animal products should be avoided. Raw meat, raw milk or raw animal organs should be handled with care to avoid cross-contamination with uncooked foods,” the World Health Organization said in a statement.
This shows that zoonosis, a phenomenon that explains how infectious diseases (EIDs) originated in animals and were transmitted to humans, can pose huge public health, biosafety, and even global security risks. It is estimated that over 60% of all EID events worldwide are zoonoses, and within the zoonosis, over 70% originate in wildlife. HIV is the most infamous example of this. The disease originated from chimps in central Africa and still kills hundreds of thousands of people annually.
Due to the wildlife trade, humans are substantially increasing our exposure to pathogens we have never been exposed to, and thus we’re not prepared to respond to. Some of the ecological, behavioral and socioeconomic factors that amplify human exposure and multiply chances of contagion of these diseases include deforestation and land-use change, habitat fragmentation, encroachment, rapid population growth, and urbanization. At the same time, climate change has created new opportunities for pathogens, accelerating the appearance of invasive species and displaced the range where natural species occur.
“Humans and nature are part of one connected system, and nature provides the food, medicine, water, clean air and many other benefits that have allowed people to thrive. Yet like all systems, we need to understand how it works so that we don’t push things too far and face the increasingly negative consequence,” Doreen Robinson, Chief of Wildlife at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), said.
The coronavirus pandemic has sparked a global discussion about the illegal wildlife trade, with some countries already addressing the issue. For instance, Gabon recently banned the sale and eating of bats and pangolins. "A similar decision was taken by the authorities when our country was affected by the Ebola virus—a ban on eating primates," Forestry Minister Lee White said. China has also announced a temporary ban on all wildlife trade and a permanent ban on wildlife trade for food.