Disease outbreaks caused by wildlife trade are a global, not just Chinese problem

13 February 2020

It is February 2020 and the world is in the grip of another infectious disease outbreak. The disease, first reported from Wuhan, China, on 31 December 2019, concerns a corona virus which has been named COVID-19. The disease is spreading fast and experts warn COVID-19 might become a global pandemic.


On 26 January 2020 it became clear that COVID-19 originated from a seafood market in Wuhan where purportedly wildlife was sold illegally. Experts of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) successfully isolated the virus in samples taken from the market.


On that same day China put in place a nationwide ban on wildlife trade in markets, supermarkets, restaurants, and e-commerce platforms.


Since the ban was established China launched an unprecedented crackdown on wildlife trade. Within a timespan of 20 days, Chinese authorities investigated 682 cases, sentenced 680 traffickers and confiscated 38,000 wild animals and 2,347kg of wildlife products.


The ban was announced to be temporary. However, pressure is building on China to make the ban permanent, both from outside and inside China. Outrage on social media by Chinese netizens in the wake of the virus outbreak indicate that support for wildlife consumption in China has reduced significantly.


On 10 February 2020 the National People’s Congress (NPC) of China declared it would revise wildlife protection laws and regulations in order to “toughen the crackdown on and punishment for the illegal hunting and eating of wild animals”. An official stated that “the supervision, inspection and law enforcement should be strengthened to ensure that wildlife trade markets are banned and closed.” It is still unclear what this legislative change will entail. Even so it is a promising sign.


At the time of writing (13 February 2020) the virus is far from under control. On 12 February the World Health Organization reported 45171 confirmed cases (44730 in China) with a total of 1115 confirmed dead (1114 in China).


Given the scale of the wildlife trade in China (both legal and illegal) it is good news for wild animals that China has acknowledged and is addressing the risks of disease transmission through the trade in wild animals. However, while the eyes of the world are on China and its efforts to contain the COVID-19 virus, it is important to understand that the spread of diseases from wildlife to humans through the wildlife trade is not a Chinese problem. It happens on all continents and is very much a global phenomenon.


Bushmeat for sale in market of Yangambi, DRC. Photo: Axel Fassio.


Wildlife consumption is widespread across Southeast Asia, Sub Saharan Africa, Latin America as well as (though perhaps to a lesser extent) North America and Europe. The trade and consumption of wild animal meat (bushmeat) in Central Africa is estimated to be over one billion kilograms per year. Bushmeat consumption in the Amazon Basin is estimated to range between 67 and 164 million kilograms annually. Africa and Latin America are seeing a worrying surge in wildlife poaching in response to a sharply increasing demand from urban populations where wild meat consumption has become fashionable. Bushmeat is not only consumed locally and regionally. Europe for example is an important destination: A recent study, involving researchers from the Zoological Society of London, showed that illegal bushmeat is ‘rife in Europe’. The study estimated that as much as 270 tonnes of bushmeat might be coming through a single airport in Paris annually.


Armadillo hunted for food, Bolivia. Photo: Vincent Vos.


Since the 1990s scientists have documented the rising threat of emerging infectious diseases spreading among people and other animals, fuelled by human activities ranging from the bushmeat consumption and the wildlife trade to the destruction of wild habitats.


Scientists have confirmed that the majority of human Emerging Infectious Diseases (EID’s), viruses in particular, are of animal origin.  Furthermore, they have established that EID’s have increased in frequency, with the proportion of those emerging from wild animals increasing substantially over the last four decades of the twentieth century.


Pathogens originating from wild animals include human immunodeficiency virus (HIV-1 and HIV-2), Ebola haemorrhagic fever, Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), Marburg virus, Sin Nombre virus, Nipah, Hendra and Menangle virus, West Nile virus and Borrelia burgdorferi.


The origin of HIV is widely thought to be linked with the consumption of primates. Ebola outbreaks in humans have been traced to infected great apes hunted for food. The SARS coronavirus was associated with the international trade in small carnivores and bats.


The transmission of infectious agents due to wildlife trade is not limited to human pathogens: domestic animals as well as native wildlife are also heavily impacted. Examples include:


  • Legal and illegal trade in domestic and wild birds has played a significant role in the global spread of highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1, which has killed more than 240 people, many millions of poultry, and an unknown number of wild birds and mammals, including endangered species, since 2003.


  • Amphibian chytridiomycosis or Chytrid fungus ( dendrobatidisand B. salamandrivorans), a fungus that eats the skins of amphibians, has been dubbed “the most destructive pathogen ever”.  The disease has been introduced globally via the international trade in amphibians and via the human-assisted introduction of invasive species. It has caused declines globally in at least 501 frog and salamander species. Of these 501 species, 90 have gone extinct or are presumed extinct in the wild and another 124 species have declined in number by more than 90 percent.


  • The Monkeypox virus, first identified in humans in 1970 in DRC, is mostly transmitted to people from wild animals such as rodents and primates. The virus has been exported from Africa a few times, including through the trade in wild African rodents that were imported into the US from Ghana.


Wild parrots smuggled in a car, India.


It is evident that the rise in emerging infectious diseases has a huge impact on public health and causes immense human suffering. Disease outbreaks have furthermore destabilised trade, have devastating effects on human livelihoods, and caused hundreds of billions of dollars of economic damage globally. In 2004 Newcomb estimated that the rash of livestock disease outbreaks around the world since the mid 1990s, including bovine spongiform encephalopathy, foot and mouth disease, avian influenza, and swine fever (but excluding HIV/AIDS) have cost world economies over $100 billion .


The cost of global biodiversity loss due to disease is yet to be assessed.


For decades scientists and conservationists have raised the alarm about the grave risks posed to public health, biodiversity and economies by the global wildlife trade. Until now governments have failed to take these threats seriously.


The COVID-19 outbreak appears to have succeeded in firing up the international debate on wildlife trade and consumption. It is hoped that governments, international organisations,  NGOs, the industry and other key stakeholders will have the wisdom to look beyond China and to acknowledge that this is a global problem that needs to be tackled on a global level. Unless decisive, holistic actions are taken to address the role of wildlife trade and consumption as a key mechanism for disease transmission, disease outbreaks associated with the global movement of wildlife will continue to occur and increase in impact globally.


Veterinary experts  have proposed taking precautionary measures focusing on wildlife markets to regulate, reduce, or eliminate the trade in wildlife in order to decrease the risks of disease for humans, domestic animals, wildlife, and ecosystems. Whilst a global ban is inconceivable, it is time to take an honest look at the wildlife trade and to weigh the benefits reaped by a relatively limited number of people in the industry against the immense costs to society as a whole and our natural world of continuing the unbridled exploitation of wildlife.

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