We Must Prevent Future Viruses by Ending Wildlife Trade

A captive slow loris in Thailand

Arayan Rattanaphan/iStock

Like all of us, NRDC has been closely monitoring the rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus and its far-reaching impact on the life of our nation and the rest of the world.

As you may have heard, COVID-19 is thought to have originated in a wildlife market in China. Scientists believe the virus may have started with horseshoe bats, traveling to other species (including, possibly, highly-trafficked pangolins) before coming into contact with humans. And this isn’t the first time—nearly two-thirds of infectious diseases originate in animals, including SARS, MERS and Avian Flu, and nearly 1.7 million undiscovered viruses may exist in wildlife.

The bottom line is that the wildlife trade is a threat to our public health that only stands to become greater, meaning that we could have greatly reduced the risk of all of this—maybe even prevented it altogether—by stopping wildlife trade.

Here are some steps we must take to help prevent these types of disease outbreaks from ever happening again:

1. Ban International Commercial Wildlife Trade. All countries should completely ban commercial imports and exports of wildlife as well as domestic trade. This ban should include animals for consumption and live animals for commercial pet markets, in part because many of the species commonly traded as pets are the same ones that carry the highest risk of zoonotic disease, like birds and small mammals (e.g., monkeys, civets, otters). Exemptions should be made for (1) legally and sustainably-sourced seafood, (2) wildlife needed to meet the nutritional and cultural needs of Indigenous Peoples and local communities, and (3) accredited zoos, sanctuaries, and museums.

The U.S. should take the lead in implementing this total ban as soon as possible given the suffering caused by COVID-19 and our country's role as one of the largest consumers of wildlife. Other countries should follow suit. If they don’t, the U.S. should pressure them to do so by essentially making it a prerequisite for doing business with the U.S. In other words, the U.S. should demand that wildlife trade bans in other countries—especially those known to be popular source, transit, and destination countries—be a part of future trade deals and financial aid packages.

Why must ALL wildlife trade be banned you might wonder? As written by our allies at the Wildlife Conservation Society, “The conditions for viruses to emerge and be transmitted to humans occur in legal and sustainable trade and markets with common species as much as in illegal and/or unsustainable trade and markets.” In other words, zoonotic diseases don’t care about things like whether their host animals are protected under domestic or international law or removed from the wild or born/bred in captivity. All that matters is that conditions are created that allow wild species to interact with each other and humans.

2. Phase Out Consumption of Wildlife for Medicinal Purposes. Countries that allow the consumption of wildlife or farmed wild animals for medicinal purposes should phase out such practices, beginning by banning the use of species known to be vectors of disease for medicinal purposes such as mammals like bats and birds. Like all other types of trade and consumption of wildlife, the trade and consumption of species for medicinal purposes carries significant risk.

3. Increase U.S. funding dedicated to fighting illegal wildlife trade. Of course, even if all the countries in the world take all of the actions mentioned above, we’re still going to have the problem of illegal wildlife trade (though at a much more manageable level than it is now). To help fix this, the U.S. should dedicate significant resources to combating illegal wildlife trade at its borders and in countries with high volumes of trade.

4. Leadership from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). CITES was designed to address the international, commercial exploitation of species threatened with extinction. While the treaty is widely regarded as an effective multilateral environmental agreement, it's not living up to its full potential, which is critical now given the COVID-19 crisis, not to mention the dire warnings in the IPBES Report and other global assessments (e.g., IPCC Reports) that about one million species are threatened with extinction, many within decades, absent transformative change. Unfortunately, the CITES Secretariat (i.e., the head of CITES) recently stated that “[m]atters regarding zoonotic diseases are outside of CITES’s mandate,” despite clear linkages between the pandemic and wildlife trade. Its anemic response to the crisis tracks with its status-quo, business-as-usual response to the biodiversity crisis overall. The CITES Secretariat should be maximizing its ability to be a part of the solution—scouring the convention text, resolutions, and decisions for avenues to effect change—not automatically shrugging its shoulders and abdicating a moral obligation to engage. Fortunately, the Convention’s mandate is determined by the Parties (i.e., countries)—not the Secretariat—and the Parties can use the treaty to ban international trade in species known or suspected to increase the threat of zoonotic disease transfer. They should do so.

5. Preserve 30% of the World’s Lands and Oceans by 2030. Unfortunately, these types of wildlife-borne viruses are only going to increase as climate change and human encroachment on wildlife habitat lead to never-before-experienced human-wildlife and wildlife-wildlife interactions that can spread disease. When thousands of acres of the Amazon are destroyed for agriculture, for example, the risk to humans from contact with wildlife increases. And the wildlife that lived on that land have nowhere to go, often forcing them to enter more urban settings where they come into contact with us. That’s one reason why it’s important that the global community agree to adopt a target of protecting at least 30% of the world’s terrestrial, freshwater, and ocean spaces by 2030 at the next meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity ("CBD") in 2021. With more land preserved, wildlife will have space to live in their own habitat. The U.S. also needs to become a party to that Convention.

The status quo—the international and domestic laws and regulations protecting species, the heightened law enforcement efforts, and the public education initiatives—just aren’t going to cut it. The world is different now for all of us, and we must use these lessons to do all we can to ensure this never, ever happens again.

About the Authors

Elly Pepper

Deputy Director, Wildlife Trade, Wildlife Division, Nature Program
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