By George Knowles & Louise Boyle, The Independent
In a bustling meat market on a tourist island in Indonesia on 7 April, a pile of dead bats is laid out for sale on a table next to cuts of fresh pork while a butcher angrily shoos away a customer trying to take pictures of the scene on his iPhone.
Two thousand miles north and two days earlier, cats are crammed into filthy cages in a market in Guangxi province in southwest China where different species are piled haphazardly on top of each other and slaughtered side by side on a concrete floor splattered with dirt, blood and animal parts.
On 26 March, in the southern province of Guangdong neighbouring Hong Kong, a traditional medicine seller offers remedies made with bats and scorpions to treat ailments ranging from shoulder pain and rheumatism to mosquito bites.
In parts of China and regions of Southeast Asia, live animal markets and the wildlife trade continues despite growing international calls for tighter restrictions on “wet” markets and the use of wildlife in traditional medicine. The novel coronavirus outbreak is believed to have originated at a wildlife market in Wuhan, China and spread to humans due to their close proximity with wild animals.
The Independent’s new campaign to Stop The Wildlife Trade comes as millions of people around the world mobilise for the first time online on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day tomorrow to tackle this year’s theme of climate action. Environmentalists have warned of the inextricable links between climate change, biodiversity loss and zoonotic diseases, such as the coronavirus, fearing it will not be the last pandemic to wreak havoc on humanity.
While meat markets in Beijing and financial hub Shanghai appear clean and orderly, “wet markets” in outlying cities in the south and west of China more than 1,000 miles from the capital show little sign of having heeded the warning from epidemiologists about the dangers of disease transfer from animals.
Indonesia’s Tomohon market has gained notoriety among visitors for its sale of wild species and the daily slaughter of dogs and cats.
Despite 6,760 coronavirus infections and 590 deaths across Indonesia, the sale of wild animals including bats, rats, and reptiles was last week continuing unchecked to the huge frustration of animal welfare groups seeking to bring at least a temporary halt to the trade. Carcasses of different species were seen chopped and thrown together on tables.
Frank Delano Manus, of Animal Friends Manado Indonesia (AFMI), told The Independent he had taken part in two recent meetings with regional government officials at which it emerged the imminent danger of pathogens passing from bats at the market in Tomohon had been known about as long ago as 2018.
“In 2018, the Department of Farming and Agriculture tested samples from bats from Tomohon market. They tested 13 bats and it turned out four of them were positive for a different strain of coronavirus to Covid-19,” he said. “I was surprised and shocked when I learnt this.”
When the coronavirus began to affect Indonesia, the regional government at first just ordered Tomohon market to open only in the mornings up to 10am – an edict that Manus says was immediately flouted.
Officials had now agreed to set up two roadblocks to stop wild animals, including cats and dogs, from being taken to Tomohon market, said Manus. They are expected to be in place within a fortnight but have come far too late according to Manus.
“Covid-19 came from China. China is a big power and a big economy and it is still struggling with this,” he said. “I told the people at one of these meetings: ‘Imagine what the effect would be on our people and our economy if this virus came from Tomohon? It would destroy everything.’”
Bats are a popular dish in Indonesia’s North Sulawesi province where they are eaten in a coconut milk-based curry. “If you ask butchers or customers if they are worried about coronavirus, they just say, ‘Coronavirus came from China. It didn’t come from Tomohon’. They aren’t concerned about it at all,” said Manus.
Dr Richard S Ostfeld, a disease ecologist and senior scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, told The Independent: “The risk of a zoonotic virus jumping to people is mostly tied to excretions from infected wildlife, including saliva, urine and feces.
“It is also possible that transmission can occur in the killing and butchering of the animals. Consuming cooked meat, whether of wildlife or livestock, does not pose the same risk.”
He added: “The health risk is in the housing of various species of wildlife, which don’t co-occur in nature, in very close quarters and in unhygienic conditions. Under these conditions, animals are stressed and shedding pathogens, which can be easily transmitted to other animals and to people.”
In late February China announced a ban on the farming and consumption of wild animals because of the coronavirus outbreak. Signs in English and Chinese saying ‘Do not eat wild animals’ are displayed at railway stations and road intersections.
Meat markets have reopened across the country and appear to be sticking by the temporary ban, which is currently expected to be lifted once the Covid-19 crisis is over. A similar ban introduced in the immediate aftermath of the 2003 Sars crisis was not extended.
However, hygiene conditions in meat markets are markedly different in different parts of the country with those in Beijing and Shanghai and major eastern cities relatively clean while they are decidedly basic in the more rural west of China.
In markets in Guilin and other towns in southwestern Guangxi province visited in the past fortnight, cages of cats, dogs, ducks and rabbits were piled on top of each other and the animals slaughtered side by side on the ground – conditions seen as a risk for species-to-species transmission of disease.
A study, published in the journal Science last week, investigated the susceptibility of ferrets and animals in close contact with humans to Covid-19.
The group of scientists in China, including researchers from the State’s Key Laboratory of Veterinary Biotechnology and National Institute for Viral Disease Control and Prevention, found that the virus replicated poorly in dogs, pigs, chickens and ducks but that ferrets and cats were permissive to infection. There was also evidence that cats were susceptible to airborne infection.
In Dongguan in neighbouring Guangdong province, an hour’s drive from the Hong Kong border, bats appeared to be back on the menu for traditional medicine dealers who advertised it as a cure for a range of ailments on a banner in a meat market.
“The conditions in the markets are exactly the same as they were before they were closed for a few weeks during the coronavirus outbreak,” said a correspondent in Guangxi.
“The only difference is there are no wild animals for sale for the time being. No one seriously expects that to last because there’s so much money in wild animals.”
In Beijing, by contrast, meat markets visited by another correspondent were similar to British supermarket meat sections with slaughtering done off site and stringent hygiene standards upheld.
“President Xi Jinping shut down all the old markets in Beijing soon after he came to power in 2012 but that just moved the wildlife trade to other parts of the country where they’ve continued to make a killing,” our correspondent in the capital explained.
In China, the focus for some officials in recent weeks has been diverting blame away from its wildlife trade towards conspiracy theories that Covid-19 may have been introduced to Wuhan by the US Army or visitors from Italy.
The source of the virus which caused Covid-19 is unknown but evidence has suggested that it probably originated in bats. Although the first human cases of the novel coronavirus were identified in Wuhan, it is not possible to determine how they got the infection, according to the World Health Organisation.
The 2003 Sars outbreak was caused by a virus jumping from civet cats to humans, according to the World Health Organisation. In a similar way, it is thought that the new coronavirus jumped the species barrier through an intermediate host, a yet unidentified species, more likely to be handled by humans – either a domestic or wild animal.
British epidemiologist Professor Ben Cowling, who works at the University of Hong Kong and has studied the original outbreak in detail, says the virus “certainly” originated in a bat and it was unlikely it could have started anywhere other than Wuhan or the area surrounding the city.
He said there was nothing inherently wrong with live animal markets provided the conditions there were clean but that the biggest single issue was the trade in wild animals – estimated to be worth some £57bn a year in China alone.
“They [China] stopped the wild animal trade in markets after Sars but it came back,” said Professor Cowling. “They’ve once again banned the sale of wild animals but there are so many vested interests and so much money involved that there are worries it could be difficult to keep it banned.”
Astonishingly, a list of recommended treatments for Covid-19 issued by China’s National Health Commission included injections of a traditional medicine treatment which contains bear bile.
Jill Robinson, founder and CEO of Animals Asia which runs sanctuaries in China and Vietnam for bears rescued from the bile trade, said: “We shouldn’t be relying on wildlife products like bear bile to combat a deadly virus that appears to have originated from wildlife.”
Instead she suggested: “Wildlife markets and farms in Asia should be permanently closed down. This latest virus outbreak is signalling a catastrophic imbalance surrounding our treatment and exploitation of wild species, and nature is fighting back.”