COVID-19 Unveils the Dangers of Global Wildlife Trade

by Gerardo Ceballos

published at Apr 20, 2020

The grim news of a new viral disease spreading like wildfire throughout the world is now all too familiar. Covid-19, which only four months ago was confined to the Chinese city of Wuhan, is now found everywhere.

In these frightening days, when the pandemic has us huddling in our homes, wary of our neighbors and feeling as if our cities have turned toxic, you might think we had more pressing things to think about than animal extinction. But there is a link between the two: The global wildlife trade, the driver of many wild species to the brink of extinction, also happens to be a root cause of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s almost as if the creatures we were accustomed to exploiting had decided not to go down without a fight.

I vividly remember a visit 15 years ago to Yogyakarta, a city and province on the Indonesian island of Java. Famous as a gateway to temples and historic sites such as the Buddhist Borobudur and the Pranbanam cluster of more than 200 Hindu temples, Yogyakarta was also known for its animal market, a hotspot for the wildlife trade.

My guide and I threaded our way down narrow alleys lined with shops full of cages—some stacked atop each other in the most unsanitary way—housing a stunning array of animals both wild and domestic. The menagerie included monitor lizards, otters, civets, raccoon dogs, monkeys, colorful wild birds of all sorts, an assortment of snakes, such as pythons and cobras.

In one shop, a giant flying squirrel peered out at me from an undersized cage. It was so beautiful, with its deep red coat, that I got the notion of buying it simply to release it back into the wild. Due to the language barrier, I had difficulty making my intention clear to the seller, but in the meantime my efforts to communicate attracted attention from another quarter.

Two locals suddenly appeared out of nowhere and addressed me in English that was quite good. Did I have any interest in more exotic animals, they asked—orangutans, Komodo dragons?

It was clear they were gangsters, dangerous guys, but despite being scared I feigned interest in hopes of getting more information. As they examined my passport, trying to determine whether I was a bonafide customer, l asked the price of a Komodo dragon. Fifty thousand US, they replied, and they’d deliver it anywhere in the world. “But what’s the most exotic animal you have?” The answer: a Philippine eagle—so rare I could barely believe it. By this time my uneasy guide was suggesting we move on. After a promise to the bad guys that I’d return the next day, the two of us were relieved to melt back into the crowded, anonymous lanes.

The global trade in wildlife, both legal and illegal, is a gigantic business, as lucrative as the traffic in illicit drugs. It is estimated that more than 100 million wild animals are traded annually in China alone, generating $74 billion in profits. Elephants are killed for their tusks, rhinos for their horns, pangolins for scales, sharks for fins, monkeys for meat, snakes for venom. And although East Asian markets far outpace the rest of the world in terms of wildlife consumed as food and traditional medicine, the West contributes its own share through the importation of exotic pets. From any point of view, this business is insanely out of control.

The trade’s squalid circumstances are much better known now than when I visited Yogyakarta. Now everyone has ready access to gruesome video footage of dead dogs lying in their own blood, butchered pythons, bats and rats roasted as kebabs, and sickly exotic animals in unhealthy and inhumane confinement. What we also know more about—having learned it the hard way—is that this kind of interface between humans, domestic animals, and wild animals creates optimum conditions for diseases to leap the species divide. When the natural barriers to direct contact between wild animals and humans fall, what is to stop a virus like Ebola, Lassa fever, Marburg, or HIV from crossing over? When feces, urine, and food residues from one cage freely drip down onto another, in close proximity to people, the roadblocks are gone.

Genetic data on Covid-19 point to an origin possibly in a bat or a pangolin (both common in East and Southeast Asian wildlife markets) sold as food in a “wet market” in Wuhan. Another coronavirus, SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), in 2002–2003, probably traveled from a bat to a civet and from there to humans, sickening 8,000 people and killing some 800. Saudi Arabia experienced a similar outbreak, MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome), in 2012.

As the frightening evidence has mounted, scientists have repeatedly warned that if wildlife consumption for food or medicine were not curtailed, more such diseases could be expected. Tragically, Covid-19 has proved them right. And it barely matters anymore where a given virus’s initial crossover took place: On a planet that can be traversed by plane in a matter of hours, epidemics may become a thing of the past—there may only be pandemics in the making.

In February, the government of China announced a ban on the wildlife trade. This is not only welcome, it is essential. The effects of the pandemic on human health and economies demonstrate that we have no alternative. Moreover, it is appropriate that the country with by far the largest wildlife-trade footprint take the initiative in dismantling a category of commerce that is ultimately suicidal for the human race.

Agitation is growing worldwide, among scientists and conservation groups, to force an end to the wildlife trade once and for all; the World Health Organization, among other bodies, is a focus of intense lobbying on this issue. The most effective measure would be a pan-Pacific treaty banning the exploitation of wild animals, under the aegis of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

We may be lurching into our last opportunity to ensure that “ecosystem services” (another name for the benefits Nature provides us when it is functioning in a balanced way) such as a life-sustaining combination of atmospheric gases, and water that is sufficient and clean enough for human use, do not get irretrievably sabotaged. Whether species’ habitats are near us or far away, the net long-term effect of their extinction will be the same: nothing less than the collapse of the natural networks that keep us alive, a dystopian breakdown of the societies we have built over millennia, and the persistent presence of plagues like Covid-19 (or worse). Ending the wildlife trade forever, immediately, would go very far toward stopping that process in its tracks. What is at stake is no less than the future of biodiversity—and the future of humankind.





Gerardo Ceballos

Dr. Gerardo Ceballos is an award-winning global environmental scientist with a specialty in animal conservation and extinction. A native of Mexico, he was elected as a foreign member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2014, and is one of only a handful of scientists from Latin America to be named members of the US National Academy of Sciences. As Founder of Stop Extinction, Dr. Ceballos works tirelessly to increase the ecological literacy of the general public. He has also written 52 books on the ecological preservation and biodiversity.