Coronavirus: New wildlife trade regime needed to avoid the next pandemic

Jul 10, 2020 | Commentary

John E Scanlon, special envoy for African Parks and former secretary-general of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, speaks to the FT’s Vanessa Kortekaas about how conservation efforts have been affected by the Covid-19 crisis and the need for a new international wildlife trade regime to avoid the next pandemic.

Q: Let’s start with the circumstances surrounding the outbreak of Covid-19 itself. The World Health Organisation has said that the virus most likely came from bats, jumped the species barrier, and infected humans via another animal source. And we know, of course, that the first major outbreak was linked to an animal and seafood market in the Chinese city of Wuhan. What role, if any, do you think humans played in causing this pandemic?

A: Yes. So, I mean, there’s no consensus yet on the origins, but what you’ve said is the most likely scenario – from a horseshoe bat, to an intermediate species, such as the pangolin, to people. Now, animals are not the problem here. The problem here is people and the way in which people interact with wildlife.

So when we clear wild places, and when we take wild animals out of the wild, out of their natural habitat, we catch them, we store them, we transport them, we put them in markets, we mix them with a whole lot of other species, both wild and domesticated. This is what causes the conditions that give rise to this spillover from a virus in an animal, perhaps to another animal, then to people. So the problem is with us and the way in which we are interacting with wildlife and wild places.

And I mean, those conditions that you just described there have been talked about. Scientists and wildlife experts have been warning about the public health risks associated to some wet markets and wildlife markets previously. If there is such a risk, is there a place for them in society? And if so, how could they be made safe?

Not all wildlife trade poses a threat to human health. For example, there are large volumes of trade in plants, which we’re not talking about. There are many animals that don’t pose a threat to public health – many fish species, coral species, et cetera. What we’re really talking about here is terrestrial mammals, and also possibly some birds, as well as amphibians and reptiles. So there’s a subset of animals. And if you want to go even deeper, it seems to be the bats, it seems to be the rodents and the primates that are of highest concern.

So what we need to do is get some definitions around this. It’s not all wet markets. Wet markets can be safe and well-regulated. There are seafood markets. There are markets that sell vegetables, et cetera. It is these markets that introduce wildlife and the sort of wildlife that poses a threat to human health. And when you put them in a market and mix them all in together, that is a recipe for disaster in terms of the outbreak of new viruses. So we just need to get some definitions around this to make sure that we’re focusing our attention on issues of high risk.

Q: And I want to turn now to the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on local conservation efforts. Has the effect of this pandemic mostly been negative? Because for example, a fall in international ecotourism and economic activity means less funds for wildlife agencies and conservancies. Or, has this unprecedented pause in human activity actually benefited some environments and wildlife?

A: Well, if you like, it’s a little bit of both. I think the impact has been far more negative than positive. The business model for conservation in the African continent is built very much around wildlife-based tourism, and that wildlife-based tourism generates huge amount of jobs, a lot of enterprise. It underpins the employment of rangers and parks agencies across the continent. So with the wildlife-based tourism basically crashing – it will come back, but it’s crashed for now – you’ve lost the major source of revenue for wildlife conservation on the continent, and that’s really devastating, devastating for parks, parks agencies, for tourism operators, for those who are catering for these parks, for those who have got enterprise around these parks. It’s a devastating blow for them.

Yes, there’ve been some positives in a sense. With less people around, less interaction, you’ve seen certain animals come back and appear. But against that, we’re really concerned about a surge in poaching. Because as people lose their jobs, they lose their livelihoods. They’re looking for sources of income. They’re looking for protein. We are fearing that there could be a big uplift in poaching. So overall, this has been very negative for conservation, very negative for all of those who have invested so much time, effort, and money into the conservation agenda, in particular through wildlife tourism.

Q: I was just going to ask about poaching. I mean, is there anything that can be done to sort of deter these people who, as you say, are turning to poaching because they’ve lost their livelihood elsewhere? Are there any measures that you’re aware of that are being taken to try and counteract that?

A: So measures are being taken. There are certain funds being made available to help local communities help parks agencies and others through this period, this very rough period over the next year or two. But what we really need to do is we need to scale up our investment in conservation at this time, not scale back. So we need to assist countries, their parks agencies, the non-government sector that’s here, but in particular the local communities who have lost their jobs, because we need to maintain this asset base, this wonderful wildlife asset base that’s going to deliver so much wealth and opportunity. For example, on the African continent, we can’t have a period of a few years when we lose it because of this dip.

And if you think about the benefits of wildlife conservation from a public health perspective, it helps avert the next wildlife pandemic. In terms of biodiversity and protecting biodiversity and everything it can be used for, climate change, to mitigate climate change, all the local jobs it creates, and the security it provides in regions where you can have decent local jobs in rural areas. So the benefits are massive from a development point of view, a climate change point of view, from a point of view of security. So we really need to tap into some of those budgets, because the benefit of good wildlife conservation is in many different ways, and we need to tap into to these various different budgets.

Q: In terms of the wider international picture, you’re a part of efforts to establish a global agreement to on the definition of wildlife crime, and also to end bad wildlife crime in the international justice system. Can you just talk through exactly what measures you want to see put in place?

A: Yeah. This Covid-19 pandemic has reminded us, in a devastating way, of the interconnected nature of everything – between animal health, human health, the economy. And it’s also highlighted some real deficiencies in our international law framework. We have international laws that regulate wildlife trade, but they only regulate it to see whether or not that trade is going to threaten the survival of that species. These wildlife trade laws are not taking account of public health or animal health risk associated with that. So that needs to change. That might have been OK pre-Covid-19. Post-Covid-19, we cannot have a wildlife trade regime that only looks at over-exploitation, only looks at the effect of that species in the wild. We need a one-health approach to wildlife trade. Bring together the conservation the animal health and the human health.

What it’s also shown us is we have a great big deficiency in how we deal with wildlife crime. Now, wildlife crime looked at generally is worth anything up to $200bn a year, and it’s having a devastating impact on local communities, national economies, and we now know ecosystems as well as public health. We don’t have, at a global level, a wildlife crime agreement in place. We’ve been relying upon a trade convention for a long time to lead the charge here. That’s not adequate. And what Covid-19 has shown is we have a real deficiency there. We need a new agreement on wildlife crime. Take these crimes seriously, address them seriously, and we can do that by creating what we call a new protocol under the UN Convention Against Transnational Organised Crime.

Q: I mean, in order to deliver all that, you mentioned starting a sort of new convention, but what other actors would have to be involved in that? So would it come down to government resources, obviously UN agencies? Does it come down even to the food industry and the supply chain to actually enforce and fund any new regulations?

A: So if we’re going to have any new international laws on wildlife trade or on wildlife crime, it’s going to be a question for states. So countries are going to decide whether or not they want to change the international legal regime, and they’re obviously going to be influenced by the views of their citizens, by the corporations that are there, by the non-government organisations that are there. I believe that we’ve got plenty of evidence available to us now that the international legal framework is clearly inadequate, and it’ll rest with states, countries, to decide whether or not they are prepared now to make some changes, and I believe that we will see a positive response here. Because the consequences of this pandemic have been so devastating, we need to take all the measures we possibly can to prevent this ever happening again, and that includes – and this is not the only thing to do – but that includes putting in place an improved international legal framework that fills the gaps that have been identified through this pandemic.

Q: And I mean in terms of just more details of the financials, the resources that would be required for this, you’ve talked about the value of the wildlife trade market globally. Clearly there is an incentive for poachers and illegal traders, but how do you convince governments to put forward the resources at a time when their own budgets are stretched to support their own health systems and economies through this pandemic? How do you convince them to put more money into this?

A: Well, if you look at the consequences of this pandemic, the trillions of dollars that it’s cost the economy, the hundreds of thousands of lives, the amount of people that have had significant impacts on their health and their families – this can all be traced back to a zoonotic disease, the spillover from a horseshoe bat, to possibly a pangolin, to humans.

Now, the scale of investment required to avert the next wildlife-related pandemic is infinitesimal compared to that. It’s not going to cost a lot to correct the international legal regime and to start to deploy better resources into combating illegal wildlife trade, and wildlife crime more generally, treat it as a serious crime, have the criminal justice system apply more time and more effort to these crimes, and fix up the wildlife trade laws internationally and nationally to take a one-health approach. The amount of money required for that is really small and absolutely infinitesimal compared to the consequences of not taking preventative action.

And we also need to invest much more in countries at source. So biodiverse-rich areas, we need to invest in them, their local communities, to protect wildlife at source. Because we do know when you protect wild places and you invest in the communities within and amongst them, they become the best protectors of that wildlife, and that’s good for biodiversity. It’s combating climate change, it’s developing decent jobs, and it’s helping us avert the next wildlife-related pandemic. So in the scheme of things, this is not a big investment proposition.

Q: And how would you describe the moment that we’re at now. I mean, arguably there’s never been more sort of global attention on these issues. Do you think there is a new sense of urgency around tackling these issues that maybe hasn’t been there before?

A: Yes, I think most definitely. We’ve known for some time the devastating consequences of wildlife crime on local communities, national economies, fueled by corruption, et cetera. But this Covid-19 pandemic has really raised the attention of the global community to these deficiencies and recognise the public health risk associated with poorly-regulated, unregulated, and illegal trade in wildlife, and unmitigated destruction of wild places. So I think it really has lifted the attention of governments, the attention of citizens, the attention of corporations to say we need a much better system for how we are regulating trade, dealing with wildlife crime, and protecting wild places. And I think we could see some quite significant changes through this if we all apply ourselves and move in the direction that I’ve suggested.

Q: And I want to turn to the prospects for meaningful change out of this pandemic. China recently introduced a temporary ban on wildlife trade and consumption, excluding for medicinal purposes. Is this just an incremental change in your view, and how crucial is China to any new international agreement tackling illegal wildlife trade, and also to maybe changing habits and conditions around wet markets or wildlife markets going forward?

A: So the conditions that can cause the next wildlife-related pandemic are not just within China. You can find them in multiple places, multiple countries. Looking at China, yes, it’s a key player. I mean, it’s a huge country, massive population, second-largest economy. It’s a big player in wildlife trade. It has been involved in wildlife trade for a very, very long time. So it’s going to be a very important player, and we’ve seen that it has stepped up here to strengthen its controls over combating illegal trade over wet markets, and wet markets with wildlife with respect to certain species, including the pangolin, giving them greater protection.

So we are seeing a shift in China with respect to how it is strengthening its laws and strengthening actions in relation to or in response to this Covid-19 pandemic. What is important, though, is that we put that in an international context. Because if China’s the only one doing it, and neighbouring countries and countries across other continents are not doing the same, we’re still at risk from these wildlife-related pandemics. So we need to put it under an international framework. That’s why I’ve suggested changes to wildlife trade laws and wildlife crime laws. So we can put this under a framework where decisions taken by China or any other country can be addressed in an open, transparent context based on the best science, and we can revisit these decisions in five years, 10 years, 20 years, 30 years.

Because measures were taken after Sars, but we have very short memories as people, and some of the measures that were taken started to get relaxed over time. We need to institutionalise our response here and embed it in the international framework so that we’ve got a collective effort and we’re all pulling in the same direction to avert the next pandemic.

Q: And on that last point, I mean, humans can be short-sighted, as you say. The world is only growing ever more connected through travel and work and, indeed, humans encroaching on animal habitats. Do you think that this pandemic, this once-in-a-century pandemic will have cause enough, I guess, human suffering and human pain to actually make people change in the long-term in terms of our relationship with the natural world?

A: Yeah, look, it’s been devastating for so many people in so many ways, but can we learn from this experience as we move forward? What is absolutely apparent from this pandemic is we must change our relationship with nature. We cannot continue on the course we have in terms of the disruption of wild places, the way in which we’re regulating wildlife trade, the way in which we are dealing with wildlife crime, and the way we’re investing in local communities to protect biodiverse-rich places.

I do think this has been a serious wake up call for the entire planet, because we’re all affected by this. And we can see that we cannot stay on the path we are. I would hope there’s enough momentum and enough appreciation now of the importance of changing our interrelationship with nature. We know what we need to do in terms of laws, investments, programmes, and how we interact with nature. If we can go on and do that, not only will we be helping prevent the next wildlife-related pandemic, we’ll be saving biodiversity, we’ll be combating climate change, we’ll be generating decent local jobs in rural communities and delivering on the sustainable development goals, and assisting with security in these places as well. So there are multiple benefits to be gained from changing the way in which we’re interrelated with nature, be it through trade, be it through how we combat illegal wildlife trade, or be it how we protect biodiverse-rich places.

John Scanlon, thank you very much.

Thank you.

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