COVID-19 brings new scrutiny to illegal wildlife trafficking

Wuhan outdoor market

The illegal trade of protected species is a highly lucrative form of organized crime — with deadly consequences. In addition to threatening ecosystems and inciting violence, wildlife trafficking plays a key role in spreading diseases, including the novel coronavirus that is now sweeping across the world.

COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, likely jumped from bats to endangered pangolins and then to humans at a wildlife market for bushmeat in Wuhan, China. Three-quarters of new human diseases, such as SARS, Ebola and HIV, come from animals. These are known as zoonotic diseases and wildlife trafficking plays a key role in their transmission from animals to humans. Wildlife trafficking has also led to the dramatic decline of many species, including rhinos, elephants and pangolins.

Related: COVID-19: The latest from The World

Investigative journalist Lindsey Kennedy recently wrote about the problem of zoonotic diseases for Foreign Policy magazine. She spoke with Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood about how the coronavirus outbreak could lead to the end of wildlife trafficking.

Steve Curwood: So, why do you study zoonotic diseases?

Lindsey Kennedy: I don’t specifically study the diseases. I’m part of a journalistic collective. I have spent the last two years with my colleague Nathan Southern, looking into the wildlife trade in Southeast Asia. I think a lot of people don’t realize how big the wildlife trafficking trade is. It’s one of the four biggest illegal trades in the world. It brings in about $26 billion a year. And most of that goes back to China. But the most trafficked mammal in the world is an animal called the pangolin. It kind of looks like a small scaly anteater, and about 10,000 of these are trafficked every year. So when we saw that carcasses of the pangolin — on their way into China, illegally being trafficked — had tested positive for the COVID-19 virus, we started thinking about whether or not this could have been something that triggered the outbreak. So, we came at it from a wildlife perspective rather than a disease studies perspective.

Explain to me how the pangolin might be related to COVID-19.

When any kind of disease can jump from a species to another species or an animal to a human, that’s called a zoonotic disease. And that’s incredibly dangerous because our immune systems aren’t prepared to deal with them. In the case of COVID-19, we know that it came from wild animals. It’s present in bats and pangolins, and snakes. We don’t know exactly which of these animals provided the link to humans. All of them are trafficked and sold within China. And we don’t know exactly how that virus moved. But what we do know is that when you bring wild animals into contact with humans and livestock, you massively increase the risk of all these different diseases jumping between species and going into the human population and just causing havoc.

And remind us of other diseases that are zoonotic — that come from animals and jumped to humans.

SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome] is another one that originated in civet cats, actually, back in 2003 in China, and that was a very similar thing. That was wildlife being sold in markets and that’s where it originated. Ebola is another one that comes from bats, similar to COVID-19. There’s just loads of them, to be honest: bird flu, swine flu — these are all zoonotic diseases.

In fact, isn’t HIV zoonotic?

Yes, it is. 

To what extent are these diseases getting into the human population because we’re destroying the habitat of these creatures and consuming more and more?

It’s definitely creating more and more risk all the time because the more you have deforestation, the more humans go further into the habitats of animals and are coming into contact with animals they [haven’t had contact] with before — every creature on Earth carries millions of types of bacteria and viruses — every time you come into contact with a new animal, you increase this risk massively. Epidemiologists have been saying for some time that the more contact we have with animals through deforestation or by going into forests and bringing animals back into our world and selling them in markets and that kind of thing, that there would be a pandemic. We just didn’t know when it was going to happen. And now we’re seeing it happen.

Talk to me about the markets where these animals are sold. You call them “wet markets.” What do they look like?

It depends on where you are in the world, because they’re not just in China. But, generally, imagine a big, sprawling market where it’s not necessarily the cleanest, but you’ve got lots of live animals squashed into small spaces in cages — different types of animals in small spaces — and sometimes you’ve got animals being cut up and prepared for sale, even while you’ve got live animals still nearby. If you think about when meat is prepared in factories, how clean that has to be and how many processes an item goes through on a production line to make sure that a virus or a bacteria doesn’t jump from one to another — none of that is happening in a big wet market like that. People are walking around, they’re touching different bits of meat. People are sneezing, animals are touching each other. It’s just chaos, really, in terms of virus prevention.

So why is it that people eat foods that are in these kinds of conditions?

In the case of China, most wildlife that’s trafficked is done so for traditional Chinese medicine. The pangolin…is used in lots of different types of Chinese medicine; Also, its scales are used in the production of meth. Parts of tiger and rhino are used in Chinese medicine. That’s why these kinds of products are brought in and sold in markets. But a lot of animals are also sold just for meats, just because it’s kind of a prestige thing to eat wild meat in a lot of the world.

What steps have China and other countries taken in terms of regulating the wildlife trade, now that we’ve seen yet another instance of how deadly this can be for humans?

It is illegal in China to import endangered animals and it has been for some time. There are a few problems with this. The big one is the fact that all efforts to stop the trade have focused on prosecution [and] haven’t done anything to tackle demand at all over the years. So, the trade hasn’t really reduced, because it doesn’t matter how many poachers you send to prison and it doesn’t really matter how many busts you make of shipments coming into China. If people still want to buy those things, someone’s going to find a way to get them in. The thing about this particular scenario with the coronavirus outbreak is that a lot of conservationists are hoping that this is going to be more effective than any of that regulation because people will be put off eating it and they’ll stop buying it, in case they get sick. So, hopefully, this situation will actually be more effective than regulation has been in the past.

Related: China cracks down on wildlife trade amid coronavirus outbreak 

What regulations has China put on it right now? Anything specific in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak?

There has been a ban on selling wildlife in big wet markets. They did the same thing after SARS, though, so it remains to be seen how long that lasts and whether it’s just until it all blows over, and then it comes back. So, again, if people want [the illegal wildlife] enough, it’ll come back. If people decide that actually it’s not healthy for them, hopefully that will stop happening. The younger people in Southeast Asia and in China aren’t as interested in eating wildlife. They don’t see it so much as a social status. It’s something the “weird older people” do. So hopefully, over time, as these people grow up, they’ll maintain those attitudes. You have to hope.

Looking back, what did we learn from the response to SARS and what can we do now to perhaps better prevent another outbreak?

I think with SARS, it was contained relatively quickly. I’m not a clinician; I don’t specialize in epidemics. But SARS was contained relatively quickly and I think we kind of got away with it. And for that reason, there wasn’t a sea change. People kind of forgot about it. They started doing the same things, buying the same animals after a little while, and I think maybe it was seen as a bit of a one-off. Whereas this time, I don’t think anyone realized how far this would spread. I mean, we’ve declared a global pandemic. It’s huge. I think that that has to leave lasting changes; that has to leave lasting attitudes toward eating wildlife and tracking wildlife this time.

This highly lucrative traffic in poaching and hunting dangerous species goes on, as you say, at a very high level. There is a huge market. How could it be stopped?

The only way you can stop the illegal wildlife trade is by reducing demand. Everything else makes it worse. There’s an amazing writer on conservation, Vanda Felbab-Brown, who uses the example of the drug trade. Let’s say you’re bringing in a massive shipment of cocaine into a country. You know that the border control is going to seize, like, 50% of that. So you just get your producers to give you 50% more cocaine in the first place. The problem is, when you apply that to animals, when you apply it to the wildlife trafficking trade, that’s incredibly destructive, because if you kill another 50% of pangolins or tigers…you’re killing more animals as a result. So really, it has to be an education thing, where you persuade people not to buy it. And you also need to remember that the people who are poaching are often in incredibly dire situations, in really poor areas, where there are few employment opportunities. So you have to treat it as a development issue, as well, and work with those people to provide better employment so that they’re not tempted to go and poach something on spec, basically. 

Related: Corruption worsens an already devastating illegal wildlife trade in Uganda 

What can the international community do to stop this? What has it done so far? And where are the deficits in the approach?

One more popular angle that’s been floated a lot…is to treat the wildlife trade as a serious organized crime problem, and sometimes as [a way] to fund terrorism. … That really gets the government’s attention. … But the problem is, then you start reacting to it with police and with armies, and those things don’t stop a little old lady in China wanting to go and buy her Chinese medicinal stuff in China. It doesn’t stop her. It doesn’t stop the poacher in Namibia, who wants to feed his family. It doesn’t stop either of those things. So even though there have been loads more money thrown at this in recent years, and even though governments are taking it very seriously, they’re kind of just going about it in the wrong way, and it’s making it worse.

It doesn’t help that in the US, a couple of years ago, Trump lifted the ban on importing elephant products, which I’m sure has nothing to do with the fact that his own son is a big trophy hunter abroad. … But as I say, the really effective policies are the ones that work with local communities, help people to shift from poaching to sustainable tourism — going and seeing the wildlife, going out and photographing wildlife instead of killing it and that kind of thing. They’ve been effective. And educating people about why it’s damaging to the environment and to themselves to eat wildlife. These are the effective things, but not so much going in all guns blazing and arresting people.

Talk to me about the broad implications of wildlife trafficking.

We are losing species across the globe faster than at any other time since the dinosaurs. It is kind of an emergency, really, the rate at which we’re losing biodiversity. And that is driven by wildlife trafficking and deforestation. That’s a tragedy in itself, to lose that incredible wealth of ecology. But it is also a tragedy for the human societies that live in these areas. In places like Indonesia, communities have lived the same way for hundreds of years. People who live on the fringes of forests hunt food in a way that is sustainable or they fish or they’re able to build their homes from trees in that area without doing serious damage. But when you have wholesale destruction of an area, you completely disrupt all of the ways those people live and you push them further into poverty. So it’s just a tragedy, kind of all across the board, really.

This interview aired on Living on Earth from PRX. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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