International Bird and Mammal Trade Risks Future Pandemics

The COVID-19 pandemic underscores the threat posed by nature deteriorating worldwide at a rate and scale unprecedented in human history. But if we reduce or remove high disease-risk species from wildlife trade—like wild birds and mammals—we can lessen the threat of future pandemics.

Blue and Gold Macaw

Blue and Gold Macaw

Credit: Credit: Matts Lindh / Creative Commons

Protecting Americans from Future Pandemics Doesn’t Threaten Hunting Traditions

 

Earlier this year NRDC sent a petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) asking it to ban U.S. imports and exports of wild mammals and birds to help prevent future zoonotic pandemics like COVID-19. Since then, several hunting organizations have expressed concerns that NRDC seeks to undermine hunting traditions by calling for a ban on the movement of game across state lines. This is not the case. NRDC’s petition is focused on halting the risky movement of wild mammals and birds between countries—not the kind of traditional hunting some Americans enjoy. Here’s why.

International Trade in Birds and Mammals Poses an Unacceptable Risk

Legal and illegal wildlife trade is estimated to affect 1 in 4 mammal and bird species globally. That level of trade is bad news for human health because birds and mammals pose the greatest risk of disease spillover from animals to humans. Birds and mammals are common hosts of viruses. For example, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Service’s (IPBES) workshop report on pandemics estimated that mammals are host to 320,000 different types of viruses. Because birds and mammals are genetically closer to humans than other animals and highly traded, they are the most likely hosts of zoonotic diseases.

We can look to our own history to see how zoonotic pandemics from birds and mammals have plagued humans in recent years, like HIV, Ebola, avian and swine flu, SARS, and COVID-19. Given trends in human and wild animal interactions that result from land-use changes, agricultural expansion, and wildlife trade and consumption, pandemics are expected to become even more common. In fact, some scientists have even deemed this “the era of pandemics,” explaining that “pandemics will emerge more often, spread more rapidly, kill more people, and affect the global economy with more devastating impact than ever before.”

While there is a lack of robust data on the value of the international trade in wild birds and mammals, researchers have estimated the global value of trade in ornamental fish, mammals, amphibians, and birds at around $5.25 billion. In contrast, last year the International Monetary Fund estimated that COVID-19 would cost the world $28 trillion in lost output. And, significantly more important than any dollars lost, is the global loss of life that is estimated at more than 4.5 million people (2021). From every angle, the international trade in birds and mammals is an unacceptable risk.

The Biden Administration Should Halt the Risky Import and Export of Wild Birds and Mammals

Given the risk associated with trade in wild birds and mammals, NRDC’s petition asks the Biden administration to do two things:

  1. First, we want the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to use its authority under the Lacey Act to find that trade of wild birds and mammals is injurious to people and wildlife, and in so doing, institute import and export bans. Banning the import and export of wild birds and mammals will help prevent future zoonotic pandemics by limiting the movement of risky wildlife through the supply chain, where direct contact occurs with numerous people and creates opportunities for zoonotic diseases to spill over.
  2. Second, we want FWS to update its existing regulatory system to comprehensively trace wildlife imports and exports. Tracking wildlife trade is an important mechanism for improving the United States’ ability to establish origin and respond to zoonotic disease emergence and re-emergence. The more we know about the origins of any diseases that do break through, the better we will be equipped to respond.

NRDC Is Not Asking FWS to Ban the Interstate Movement of Birds and Mammals

NRDC’s petition does not ask FWS to ban the movement of wild birds and mammals between states. Instead, it asks FWS to expand the scope of wildlife already subject to import bans to include all wild birds and mammals. As reservoirs of potentially dangerous viruses, it is too risky to allow wild birds and mammals from other countries to enter the United States and to maintain U.S. demand for products that produce dangerous human/wildlife interactions overseas. Similarly, to set a good example and to keep our own unique wildlife viruses from spreading, we should stop exporting wild birds and mammals from the United States to other countries.

Not only has NRDC not asked FWS to ban interstate transportation of wild birds and mammals, the legal authority upon which NRDC based its request—the Lacey Act—does not give FWS the power to ban interstate transportation of wild birds and mammals. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit made this clear when they ruled on this very issue in 2017, holding that the provision of the Lacey Act under which we petitioned does not extend to interstate transport (except for Hawaii, which the Lacey Act treats differently given its unique island status). If an Idaho family goes on a hunting trip in Montana or Wisconsin, the petition (if granted) would not bar the movement of any killed animal or part thereof back to Idaho.

Because NRDC’s petition focuses on the US border, it could (if granted) limit the ability of people traveling overseas to bring back wildlife into the United States. Specifically, such a rulemaking would bar wild birds or mammals obtained as pets or trophies from entering the United States. And, while FWS could designate exceptions to a ban via a permitting process, it should not do so unless it can make an affirmative case to the public that a permitted import is risk free. This is an important step to maximize our ability to limit the threat of future pandemics.

Business-As-Usual Means More Pandemics

The COVID-19 pandemic underscores the threat posed by nature deteriorating worldwide at a rate and scale unprecedented in human history. If we continue business-as-usual, neglecting to reverse the drivers of nature’s decline, we risk losing the natural life support systems we depend on for life as we know it, things like clean air, clean water, food security, and flood control. And, we will have more pandemics. But if we reduce or remove high disease-risk species from wildlife trade—like wild birds and mammals—we can lessen the threat of future pandemics.

That’s what NRDC’s petition seeks to do and it’s what we expect the Biden administration to act on if its serious about proactively protecting human health.

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