The coronavirus outbreak offers a chance to rethink our relationship with wild animals

Feb 1, 2020 | News

By Alexander Lebedev, The Independent

The microbe with the abbreviation 2019-nCoV has dominated world headlines for the past week. Horror-struck, we have watched the virus cross continents and lock down Chinese cities, with biohazard suit-clad scientists taking up our TV screens. Yet science is already working towards a solution, and no doubt modern medicine we will handle this deadly infection, just as it did the Sars epidemic of 2002. Already 132 people have lost their lives; this is a tragedy, but an existential threat to humanity this is not.

The Huanan market in Wuhan, where the coronavirus is believed to have emerged, is a remarkable place. And it is not remarkable for seafood, as indicated on its official sign. Rather, it is known for selling a menagerie of wild animals for consumption.

A price list has been seen online, offering such “delicacies as bats, foxes, crocodiles, giant salamanders, snakes and porcupines”. You could even buy a peacock for your supper. Though unverified, it does not seem implausible. “Freshly slaughtered, frozen, and delivered to your door. Wild Game Animal Husbandry for the Masses!”

The coronavirus strand, 2019-nCoV, has been linked to both bats and snakes by researchers. These are the same animals that were kept in Wuhan in the unsanitary conditions typical of a live animal market. It is worth noting that the previous Sars epidemic was also associated with the consumption of a wild animal in China: the civet.

The outbreak provides a good reason to reflect more broadly upon our medieval attitudes to nature. “Supply creates its own demand” is the basic principle of a market economy. Unfortunately, the demand of a small section of the population for exotic dishes and souvenirs from wild animals is a shot in the arm for poachers around the world.

They kill elephants and rhinos in Africa, tigers and bears in the Far East for tusks, bones, paws, claws and skins, from which in the Celestial Empire produces bijouterie and amulets used in “traditional medicine”. This has nothing to do with the substantial treatment of disease. As a result, whole species are on the brink of extinction. In reality, a rhino horn is merely a nail. Misguided beliefs turn it into a valuable pseudo-aphrodisiac, leading to cruelty and poaching.

Humanity’s relationship with wildlife is by no means a Chinese problem alone. Just look at the indulgent indifference of American society to keeping wild animals in zoos (visited by around 175 million Americans annually; half the population), its elite’s big game hunting culture or its scepticism about global warming. These are not rational matters.

Julian Huxley, founder of Unesco and founding member of the World Wildlife Fund, wrote in his Essays of a Humanist: “This earth is one of the rare spots in the cosmos where the mind has flowered. Man is the product of nearly three billion years of evolution, in whose person the evolutionary process has at last become conscious of itself and its possibilities. Whether he likes it or not, he is responsible for the whole further evolution of our planet.”

Humans must leave endangered wildlife in peace, ending the butchery of rare mammals for the sake of souvenirs and delicacies, and take measures to preserve populations. We must also work to end the keeping of fauna in captivity. Our barbarism towards nature does not begin with a poacher lurking in the bushes but with a snake in a food market, ogled by passing children, or a tiger stuck in a cage at the zoo, at which they point and laugh.

These same children grow up to see no problem with the cruelty of man to nature. They become the developers who threaten natural habitats, or the consumers who indulge in rare meats. Our abuse of the natural world has consequences. It is chilling to trace a line between human activity and the natural disasters that have become all too familiar; mass extinctions; scorching wildfires; ecosystem collapse and – possibly in the case of coronavirus – deadly epidemics.

Alexander Lebedev’s family co-own The Independent and Evening Standard titles.

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