Covid-19 and New Zealand’s Role in the Global Illegal Wildlife Trade

Jun 10, 2020 | Commentary

By Fiona GordonEnvironmental Policy Analyst & Ambassador to the Jane Goodall Institute New Zealand

The pandemic which has sent countries into lock down and wiped billions from economies has refocused attention on the illicit trade of wild animals.  From pangolin scales to primate skulls, elephant ivory and tiger bone the wildlife products arriving at New Zealand’s border provide an insight into the truly global extent of the illegal trade in wildlife.

Scientists say the coronavirus (SARS CoV-2) that causes Covid-19 most likely originated in bat populations.  Somewhere along its evolutionary path it probably jumped to an intermediary host animal before acquiring its ability to infect humans. As it forges a path of misery around the globe it is exposing our inadequacies – those of national health systems, international agreements, and ultimately our conservation efforts.

Wild animals can naturally carry potentially harmful bacteria, parasites, fungi and viruses including coronaviruses. It is when these jump to humans—called a spillover event—that they can cause illnesses, known as zoonotic diseases.

Fortunately for us, intact and healthy ecosystems tend to provide a kind of natural firewall between humans and zoonotic diseases. 

There are literally hundreds of coronaviruses circulating among animals such as pigs, camels, bats and cats. Of the seven coronaviruses known to affect people, three have emerged from their animal reservoirs to cause serious and widespread human illness and death in just the last two decades: Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2012 and now Covid-19.

Humankind has now poked so many holes in nature’s firewalls that coronaviruses can now just walk right on through. From the destruction of forests to our relentless encroachment into pristine habitats – in our failure to conserve the natural world, we have failed ourselves as well. 

The stand-out failure though has to be our ongoing inability to halt the illegal wildlife trade. By default and by association, we’ve also failed to control the legal international wildlife trade effectively.  Concerns are now being raised that the shortcomings of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) which regulates international wildlife trade could even expose us to the next pandemic.

At a recent IUCN Commission on Environmental Law webinar event, John Scanlon AO, former Secretary-General to CITES, explained that “CITES does not regulate the way the wildlife is harvested, handled, or stored in the source state, or how it’s handled, stored, sold or consumed in the destination state.” He said that, “captive breeding facilities, which now account for close to 60% of trade in animals, are not assessed by CITES on public health grounds. Yet all of these activities can pose a risk factor for the emergence of zoonotic diseases.”

Despite aiming to regulate international trade, as Scanlon points out, CITES does not create enforcement authorities or require illegal trade to be criminalized, and it is not a natural forum for police and other enforcement officials.

Such shortcomings are perhaps best illustrated by CITES’ inability to end wildlife crime, which is estimated to be the world’s fourth biggest illegal trade. A pertinent example is that of the pangolin, which has been suggested as a potential intermediary host of Covid-19, although research is so far inconclusive.  Despite being afforded the highest-level of protection under CITES, the illegal trade in these scaly anteaters is at a record high, according to Scanlon.

With the unenviable reputation of being the most heavily trafficked wild mammal in the world it should be no surprise that pangolin body parts arrive in New Zealand too.  

Between 2017 and 2018 official data show 12 occurrences of seizure or surrender (seizure records) of items consisting of pangolin body parts – a total of about 152 individual items including sachets of whole and powdered scales, bags of raw ingredients, tea bags and soup, a medicine ball, packets of tablets and pills, and a necklace containing a pangolin claw/foot. Most of the items arrived from China.

These products represent only a minute portion of the more than 18,000 seizure records of CITES listed wildlife over the same two year period.  About 65% of the seizure records are for corals and shells, another 8% are for the roots of plants, and a further 11% are for meat – typically crocodile and alligator meat, but also featuring minke whale, dolphin meat, bear, turtle and python meat.

Table 1:

*Seizure Records include records of seizure and records of surrender.

Data Source: New Zealand CITES Illegal Trade Report 2017 and 2018, provided by Department of Conservation, New Zealand. Graph Source:  Data analysis, summary and graph produced by Gordon Consulting, New Zealand.

Medicines make up a further 7% of the seizure records, over half of which are for Saussurea Costus, an endangered flowering thistle.  Other have been made from the body parts of animals such as Saiga Antelope, Musk Deer, leopard, tiger, bears (including bear bile), primates, turtles, pangolin and snakes. Other products include leather products, elephant ivory and feet, and the skulls, teeth and claws of leopard, bears, and lynx.

It makes for a gruesome shopping list and it is worthwhile recalling that each seizure record can and often does consist of multiple individual items – sometimes hundreds and even thousands of items.  About 5% of the seizure records represent more than 69,000 individual items made from wildlife considered to be threatened with extinction. Listed on CITES Appendix I, these are the most endangered species of all those listed under CITES and international trade is prohibited, except for exceptional cases.  The remaining seizure records are almost entirely for species listed on Appendix II.  These are species not necessarily now threatened with extinction, but they could become so if trade is not closely controlled.  This is not a mere numbers game.

So, how do all these wildlife products get to New Zealand?  By far the majority of seizure records are related to airports, in particular Auckland Airport situated within the country’s largest city. Data further indicate that 64% of the seizure records are associated with New Zealand citizens and 32% are associated with visitors.

Table 2:

*Seizure Records include records of seizure and records of surrender.

Data Source: New Zealand CITES Illegal Trade Report 2017 and 2018, provided by Department of Conservation, New Zealand. Graph Source:  Data analysis, summary and graph produced by Gordon Consulting, New Zealand.

Table 3:

*Seizure Records include records of seizure and records of surrender.

Data Source: New Zealand CITES Illegal Trade Report 2017 and 2018, provided by Department of Conservation, New Zealand..Graph Source:  Data analysis, summary and graph produced by Gordon Consulting, New Zealand.

It is a depressing picture and one that exemplifies the truly global extent of the illegal wildlife trade.  On a positive note, New Zealand has introduced an instant infringement fine system for offences relating to the international wildlife trade, which is a useful enforcement tool in addition to prosecution options.  The Government is also due to announce the results of the 2019 review of the Trade in Endangered Species Act, the key national piece of legislation relating to the international trade in endangered species, which included an option to ban New Zealand’s domestic trade in elephant ivory.

Along with regulation and law enforcement, demand reduction strategies form part of the package needed to combat wildlife crime effectively. With such a rich database at its fingertips, the New Zealand Government is well positioned to develop targeted strategies which aim to shift purchasing preference and buyer behaviour away from illegal wildlife products.  Former Prime Minister Helen Clark says, “It is vital that New Zealand strengthens its vigilance against this vile illicit trade, and not become a weak link in the chain of global efforts aimed at stopping it.”

Scanlon urges that we all “finally grasp the nettle with wildlife crime” and recognise the massive impacts wildlife crime has on economies, ecosystems, public and animal health, security, and people. 

“The risks of future wildlife-related pandemics are real, and the stakes are high,” he says, “preventing them requires bold reforms to wildlife crime and trade laws. Making these reforms rests with countries. Now is the time to present them with viable options and a broad alliance of organisations has come together to do just that under the banner Global Initiative to End Wildlife Crime.”

“I am delighted to Chair the Initiative,” says Scanlon, “which is advocating for and offering technical support to create a new international agreement on wildlife crime and to amend existing international wildlife trade laws to include public health and animal health into decision making.”

The risks of future wildlife-related pandemics can come from unregulated, regulated, and illegal wildlife trade. This is a matter for every nation to be far more cognisant of in the wake of Covid-19.