On 24 February, the Chinese Government announced a strict ban on the hunting, trade, farming and sale of terrestrial wild animal species for consumption, as well as tightening of controls on scientific and medicinal uses. The decision was made in light of scientific evidence suggesting that the virus behind the COVID-19 epidemic, SARS-CoV-2, was first transmitted to humans via a pangolin – one of the most commercialized wildlife species in Asia – in a “wet market”.

While some have applauded this decision, it is important to reflect on how effective this measure can be within a lucrative international business, involving uses other than food consumption, as well as its implications for food security and rural livelihoods.

Recent scientific evidence points to pangolin, one of the most commercialized wildlife species in Asia, as the possible transmitter of the virus behind the COVID-19 pandemic to humans. Photo: SecretBase88 / Flickr.

The wildlife trade and regulation

Wildlife trade is part of both local subsistence economies and larger-scale luxury markets that sometimes transcend national borders. The trade is predominantly illegal or at least legally ambiguous, and thus takes place in clandestine markets and value chains.

Law enforcement is very complex in a culture of illegality, even more so when it comes to such a lucrative business. It is estimated that China’s recent ban could cost its economy US$7.1 billion, while trafficking in wild animals is the third most profitable illegal business globally. On the other hand, wildlife trafficking often occurs in countries or regions with weak institutions, where it is difficult to ensure compliance with a ban.

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is an evident and urgent need to regulate the wildlife trade to prevent further zoonotic outbreaks. However, is banning the trade, and specifically banning the consumption of wild animal species, the right response? More importantly, is it realistic?

It is informative to look at these questions from the perspective of demand. As long as demand persists, we are at risk of pushing existing wildlife supply chains further underground, making them more difficult to control, with no sanitary requirements for the handling of animals, whether alive or dead. It is under precisely these conditions that the risks of disease transmission are increased. This, added to weak law enforcement, could create more problems than it solves.

Is the consumption of wild animals really the problem?

SARS-CoV-2, like the viruses between other recent deadly epidemics such as SARS, MERS and Ebola, is presumed to have a zoonotic origin. However, animal-to-human infections do not occur in most cases through direct consumption of wild species. Ebola, for example, is spread by contact with bodily fluids or secretions from an infected animal, and the virus is inactivated at normal cooking temperatures. In the case of SARS, experts believe that transmission through ingestion is unlikely, attributing it rather to the process of slaughter and preparation before cooking. Likewise, a study of scientific literature carried out in 2017 on zoonotic diseases originating in tropical forests concluded that wild meat does not constitute a risk to human health if rigorous sanitary standards are followed preparation.

“Illegal wildlife markets can thus be ideal venues for the spread of new viruses, as trying to keep them hidden in order to evade law enforcement tends to lead to overcrowding – including between different species.”

As the highest risks of disease transmission are during handling and preparation of wild animals, the same risks are clearly present in other uses; for example when animal parts (meat, skin, bones) are prepared for use in traditional medicine or industry (such as leather). For this reason, it makes sense to regulate all uses of the resource – its entire value network – instead of creating specific prohibitions for some uses.

Another risk is generated by contact between live animals along the value chain. Studies have shown that contact between different species that would not normally occur in the wild has enabled the emergence of zoonotic pathogens. Illegal wildlife markets can thus be ideal venues for the spread of new viruses, as trying to keep them hidden in order to evade law enforcement tends to lead to overcrowding – including between different species. For this reason, any decision to clamp down on wildlife trade should consider the risk of increasing exposure among different species as long as demand continues.

Trade and consumption of domestic animals also poses risks

Even if all types of wildlife use were banned, would the risks of zoonotic disease transmission be completely eliminated? Viruses like H5N1 (bird flu) and H1N1/09 (the virus behind the 2009 swine flu pandemic) have been transmitted to humans by domestic animals, and yet there has been no public debate on whether we should ban trade in these animals too. It is clear that the handling of domestic animals for human consumption is much more regulated than that of wild animals, precisely because of its legality.

Photo: Tomás Escalante/Flickr

The risks of viruses infecting humans from domestic species have been mitigated by strict sanitary regulations tailored to the species and its interactions with humans and other animals. This contrasts with the wildlife trade, in which illegality, legal loopholes or insufficient regulation prevail, and for which sufficient and appropriate sanitary requirements have not been developed for different species. Wildlife legislation in many countries has not been developed with human consumption in mind.

Wildlife and the livelihoods of vulnerable populations

The trade and consumption of wild animal species often occurs in rural contexts, where communities depend on this resource for their subsistence and more. Wildlife is an essential part of the livelihoods of many rural communities. Wild meat not consumed by the hunter or their family may be sold locally, and the  income put towards meeting basic needs such as medicine, other foods and tools.

Wild meat may also be the main source of animal protein or used to diversify diets. Furthermore, hunting and the use and consumption of wild animals can have close links with cultural identity, especially in indigenous communities, being used in festivals and rituals, and for medicinal uses. Finally, many people perceive wild meat as healthier as it does not come from industrial farms.

Regulatory frameworks for wildlife trade need to differentiate between local subsistence uses from large-scale trade, to avoid marginalizing rural communities and impacting their livelihoods.

SEI is working alongside the Center for International Forestry Research in a project that aims to reconcile wildlife conservation issues with those of food security in a set of socio-ecosystems, wetland and savannah in Guyana.

As part of our Governing Bioeconomy Pathways initiative, SEI will contribute to ensure that the local efforts to manage wildlife sustainably are supported by policies, laws and regulations at the national level from different sectors that influence directly or indirectly the sustainable use for wildlife.

Regulation for sustainability

An alternative to an indiscriminate ban on wildlife trade for consumption, such as the one adopted in China, is regulation for conservation and sustainable use, which seeks to harmonize economic, social and environmental imperatives.

From a public health perspective, evidenced-based regulation should establish different requirements for different species according to the risks they pose to  human health, as well as regulations around how to transport and keep live animals, stringent sanitary requirements covering slaughter, preparation, storage and transport of wild meat.

Likewise, regulation should cover not only consumption but all possible uses of wild animals that could impact public health. Finally, it should differentiate between subsistence uses and large-scale trade, taking into account rural contexts.

It is crucial to bear in mind that both options – regulation and prohibition – require effective administration and enforcement. In China as in many other countries, this is perhaps the most difficult challenge in addressing the problems of the wildlife trade.