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Illicit Wildlife Trade Bites Back: Coronavirus Origins

Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that cause disease in animals. A few such as the 1918 influenza, Sars in 2009, Ebola and the latest virus Covid-19, have made the jump to humans. Now person-to-person contact is thought to be the main method of transmission for the Covid-19 virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

But where did it all begin this time?

There will be few positives to take from Covid-19, with first cases dating back to November 2019 and rapidly spreading worldwide. But the global pandemic may yet prove to be an important moment in the attempts to address the illegal wildlife trade.

From live monkeys smuggled through customs to tigers shot or bred for their bones, the ever increasing demand for wildlife - dead or alive - has created the world’s fourth-largest smugglers market, right behind drugs, humans and guns. Gram for gram, rhino horn and endangered turtles are now worth more than cocaine. But experts warn the world's latest coronavirus outbreak shows the trade threatens more than just animals. China has had wildlife trading bans on the books for three decades, but those haven’t prevented pangolins from becoming the most trafficked mammal in the world.

Pangolin - Wikimedia Commons

Asian Wildlife Market - Wikimedia Commons

In the meantime all the media focused on effects rather than causes, in particular the global implications for public health and economies. But the important fact is also to unravel the timeline of the pandemic and categorically determine its initial cause.

An article from “The Conversation” from March 2020 states: “What we do know to date is that the epicentre of the disease was in the Chinese city of Wuhan, an important hub in the lucrative trade in wildlife – both legal and illegal. The outbreak is believed to have originated in a market, in which a variety of animal-derived products and meats are widely available, including peacocks, porcupines, bats and rats. It’s also a market where regulatory and welfare standards are rudimentary at best.

Some of this trade is legal under Chinese domestic law but the existence of a parallel illegal trade – often within the very same market or stall – allows some traders to launder illicit wildlife products into the system. This situation is very difficult to regulate and control.

We are also reasonably certain that the spill-over event involved the crossover of the virus from animals to humans, similar to the situation with previous contagions like the Ebola and SARs viruses. In each of these cases, the existence of large, unsanitary and poorly-regulated wildlife markets provided an ideal environment for diseases to cross over between species. In a country like China, where wildlife consumption is so deeply embedded in culture, such contamination can, and did, spread rapidly.”

“The more we hunt wildlife, the more we come in contact with new environments and the more we increase the likelihood of us being exposed to these viruses,” explained Peter Ben Embarek of the World Health Organization’s International Food Safety Authorities Network. “It’s clear that poaching and hunting endangered species has to stop. It’s totally unacceptable. I think everybody in all authorities of the world are in agreement with that.”

Easier said than done! Hopefully the Covid-19 pandemic has finally made us recognise that the illegal wildlife trade poses an intolerable danger to public health. An increased effort to stop the illegal wildlife-trade worldwide is the only option to protect our health in the future. But given humans have short memories, once the danger has passed public concern will turn to the next big problem. Covid-19 clearly represents an exceptional opportunity to combat the wildlife trade, and ensure that animal-borne diseases do not mutate and cross over to humans. But only time will tell whether this opportunity will be taken or put off once again until the emergence of the next pandemic poses an even bigger global threat.

To all our readers around the world, we wish you well in those times of uncertainty. Stay safe and healthy! From all of us at



The Conversation, March 2020 (viewed 18.03.2020)


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