Is wildlife consumption to blame for COVID-19? The consumption of wild animals is nothing new, and very common in Asia. Most researchers pin the origin of the virus on animal-to-human transmission from a wild animal (a bat is the usual suspect) to humans.

To stop the wildlife-to-human transmission of unknown diseases, we first need to understand some of the cultural factors to which wildlife consumption and trade are intricately connected. If we haven’t learned from the initial SARS episode and from the Avian Influenza epidemic, now is the time to pay attention to wildlife consumption and make changes to avoid future loss of life.

Wildlife as a staple part of diets

While researching for my PhD in Lao PDR, I lived in a remote rural community where wildlife was the primary source of protein. During the dry season, especially, when farming was slow and forests were more accessible, men went on hunting trips for game, including bamboo rats, red squirrels, deer, boar, reptiles, monkeys and – yes – bats.

The local people took their food from the immediate environment. The community numbered around 700 residents, yet it extracted 61 tons of wild animal and plant biomass annually from the accessible forest surrounding the village. Wildlife was necessary protein and, together with forest vegetables, completed the people’s daily dietary needs.

Even if wildlife consumption in communities may decrease over time, we can also expect an increased commercialization of wildlife by poor rural people seeking alternative sources of income.

While we found rare and critically endangered species in many wet markets in Lao PDR, for the most part and in much larger quantities, we found lower value wildlife, such as squirrels, rats, snakes, birds, and bats. These food items were not the highly sought-after top-tier rarities, but they were sold in large quantities and they were definitely not checked by the local food safety department.

Wildlife as traded goods

In Lao PDR, over 50 000 hectares of primary forest are lost annually due to deforestation, consequently destroying wildlife habitat. Decreased access to wildlife as food might prompt some communities to subsist on farm animals as their main source of protein, but will this stop them from hunting wildlife altogether? Maybe not.

Apart from wildlife consumption, certain species – especially those associated with power, prowess, libido, or deemed to have medicinal value – are sold for a hefty price. The IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species notes that 45 out of the 215 mammal species identified as endemic in Lao PDR are threatened.

Local wet markets in remote locations of Lao PDR displayed a stunning array of wild animals: red junglefowl (the domestic chicken’s primary progenitor, and now threatened because of hybridization with it), the Laotian rock rat (endangered), various locally unique subspecies of wild boar, sambar deer (vulnerable), mouse-deer (endangered), the Laotian giant flying squirrel (critically endangered), the Asiatic softshell turtle (vulnerable), and the Mekong giant catfish (critically endangered). Rare wildlife was ready to be sold to local consumers who believe these animals hold spiritual and curative powers.

Rare wildlife species become more valuable just before they are completely eradicated. In 2018, the president of Thailand’s largest construction company got caught poaching in a national wildlife sanctuary. Among the several carcasses in his possession was a black panther, an ultra-rare leopard species. According to a news report, the black panther is associated with “sexual virility”, hence the prize kill. Sadly, the man, among the 40 richest in Thailand at the time, was acquitted of killing the animal. (He was, however, handed two related sentences for poaching intent, weapons charges, and bribery.)

While this case is hopefully not the norm, the bulk consumption of less valuable wildlife is likely more threatening in terms of potential outbreaks of diseases. It does, however, show that biodiversity is threatened at all levels, both among high-value prize animals as well as bulk extraction of largely unchecked game.

Wildlife weaved into knowledge systems

While poaching as a rich man’s game continues, so does low-level wildlife trade at live animal and wet markets across Asia.

The various systems of knowledge in play may actually be encouraging wildlife trade and consumption. For example, in Buddhism, monks are forbidden to eat 10 types of meat: humans, elephants, horses, dogs, snakes, lions, tigers, leopards, bears, and hyenas (though there is some regional variance in which meats are prohibited). But some of these meats are ascribed medicinal properties, and these ancient medicinal knowledge systems are widely acknowledged by international organizations (e.g. WHO, UNESCO, WIPO) as complementary to scientific medicine.

Today, traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, Yoga and Nuad Thai are globally popular, and just last year, UNESCO added Nuad Thai to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. It’s interesting to note that these traditional knowledge systems all work in conjunction with wild plants and animals being extracted from forests.

Regardless of the reasons for wildlife consumption, it would be a mistake to assume that wildlife trade will decline merely due to more stringent laws or stricter controls. What’s needed is awareness and behaviour change, because trade in and consumption of wildlife is not regulated by price but by necessity and belief.

Countries like China and Lao PDR may now increasingly appreciate the value of biodiversity and the need to crack down on wildlife trade for food and medicinal purposes. This, however, needs to be done without endangering the food security of the poor and while upholding important knowledge systems, such as alternative medicine.

Rethinking our relationship with wildlife

Before the coronavirus pandemic came to light, the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 15) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was scheduled to be held in Kunming, China, in October 2020. Perhaps, with the arrival of COVID-19 and the Chinese Government’s new interest in taking a more active role in preserving biodiversity, there is an opportunity to make strides towards curbing wildlife trade, understanding wildlife extraction, furthering biodiversity research and developing culturally appropriate pro-South solutions and alternatives.

If there are any silver linings in the COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps rethinking our relationship with wildlife is one, and we can seize the opportunity presented to us by the CBD framework and the new 10-year strategic plan to be developed this year.

In the spirit of a new awareness for biodiversity and wildlife trade, I would expect active measures against wildlife trade and consumption to be devised, with Asia taking the lead, both to preserve ancient knowledge systems as well as to prevent future outbreaks of disease.