It’s ‘business as usual’ for global wildlife organisations amid the COVID crisis

Nov 12, 2020 | Commentary

By Anna Zangger[i], Adam Cruise[ii], Keith Lindsay[iii], John Duhig[iv] and Rosie Awori[v]

The latest Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report, published on October 29th 2020, warns  that “Future pandemics will emerge more often, spread more rapidly, do more damage to the world economy and kill more people than COVID-19”. According to the 22 experts who wrote the report, trade and consumption of wild species, coupled with land utilisation and the expansion and intensification of agriculture, are the root cause of the current COVID crisis, the worst pandemic in the last 100 years. However, in the face of the on-going health and economic crisis, global wildlife organisations are turning a blind eye.

Despite widespread calls to ban wildlife consumption globally, international wildlife organisations are instead continuing to support wildlife trade, arguing that this trade can be “safe, sustainable and legal” and promoting a ‘business as usual’ approach. Their position not only represents a threat to humankind, it is highly irresponsible in the face of the looming mass extinction of biodiversity on a global scale.

Almost all recent pandemics (HIV, SARS, MERS, Ebola, Zika, Nipah, bird and swine flus and now COVID-19) are zoonotic in origin – they originate in other animals – and most of these (HIV, SARS, Ebola, Zika and COVID-19) originate in wild animals.  These pandemics are directly caused by human encroachment into natural environments due to an increasing demand for wildlife and agricultural space, and worsened by international trade in endangered species. According to the IPBES latest report on Biodiversity and Pandemics, “the increasing complexity of wildlife trade networks, including wildlife farms, live animal markets with mixed livestock and wildlife, long-distance bulk transport and international trade will likely increase future risk of disease emergence”.

Even with evidence that wildlife trade and consumption poses a grave threat to human health – with the economic consequences we have witnessed recently – and widespread calls to ban wildlife trade globally, some key international bodies promote a ‘business as usual approach’. The Collaborative Partnership on Sustainable Wildlife Management (CPW), which comprises a group of international organisations, including purportedly ‘neutral’ entities such as the CITES Secretariat, the IUCN, the FAO, but also avowedly pro-trade and pro-hunting organisations like the International Council for Game and Wildlife Conservation, recently issued a joint statement to this effect.

The group maintains that “blanket bans on the trade, harvesting, consumption or other forms of use of wildlife and wildlife products, most notably the consumption and trade of wild meat at so-called wet markets, would fail to tackle the underlying causes of the spread of new zoonotic diseases.” These organisations instead argue that the global call to end the wildlife trade would “prove counterproductive for millions of people whose livelihoods and food security rely directly on their access to and use of various species of wild fauna and flora” and that any future assessments in the post-COVID world should be “grounded in science.” However, there is no tangible proof that it will be counter-productive, especially when it comes to the economic empowerment of African communities as a result of commercial trade or hunting expeditions either by local people or by fee-paying foreigners.

The fact that all recent pandemics are directly caused by the human capture, trade, slaughter and consumption of other animals, ought to be enough proof that the consumptive model of wildlife is dangerously problematic. The suggestion that it is even possible to have a safe, well-controlled and sustainable international wildlife trade is wildly unrealistic. The livelihoods of indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) may depend to a greater or lesser extent on subsistence use of wild animals and plants, but they will in no way be served by promotion of a globalised demand for and market in endangered species. While suggesting that decisions on wildlife trade should be science-based, the CPW organisations are instead ignoring the science that has proven that it is precisely the current approach to wildlife trade and consumption, coupled with habitat destruction and biodiversity loss, that are causing millions of deaths and economic disasters today. Worse still, this ‘business as usual’ approach may well pave the way to future pandemics – potentially far worse both in lethality and scope.

In fact, according to experts, “future pandemics are likely to happen more frequently, spread more rapidly, have greater economic impact and kill more people if we are not extremely careful about the possible impacts of the choices we make today.” Global organisations and conventions which deal with international wildlife conservation must therefore as a priority alter their current support of the commercialisation and trans-national marketing of wildlife, in order to avoid future pandemics. International efforts are instead needed to adopt or adapt policies aimed at the prevention of natural habitat destruction, and wildlife consumption and trade.

There have been widespread calls for a ban on wildlife trade since the beginning of the pandemic – a measure adopted recently by China and Vietnam to address the COVID-19 crisis. As highlighted in 2019 in the IPBES Global Assessment Report, more than stopping international trade in wildlife or in endangered species, we need fundamental and transformative change in the way we treat nature – a deep rethinking of humankind’s relationship with the planet and its non-human inhabitants. According to the IPBES experts, “as daunting and costly as this may sound – it pales in comparison to the price we are already paying.”

The CPW group, therefore, need to recognise that the legal trade and commercialisation of wildlife will not only harm the natural environment, but will cause human social, economic and cultural collapses due to the onset of pandemics like COVID-19. It should be obvious to them that the future of humanity depends on the future health of the natural environment.

[i] Anna Zangger is a lawyer and Director of International Campaigns for Fondation Franz Weber, a Swiss-based organisation which has been working for the protection of wildlife and the natural environment since 1975

[ii] Adam Cruise is an investigative wildlife journalist with a PhD in environmental and animal ethics from Stellenbosch University, South Africa

[iii] Keith Lindsay is a conservation biologist and environmental consultant with over 40 years of experience in Africa and Asia

[iv] John Duhig is an EU regulatory affairs expert and adviser on advocacy and political campaigning to a number of international NGOs

[v] Rosie Awori is a Kenyan journalist and senior writer and corporate communications strategist at the Pan African Wildlife Conservation Network

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