The COVID-19 pandemic has infected over 1.2 million globally and is believed to have killed nearly 70,000 people. It is now widely accepted that the deadly virus originated in a wildlife market in Wuhan, in the Hubei province of China.
In such markets – commonly known as “wet markets” – live and dead animals are sold for human consumption, often in filthy conditions which allow diseases to incubate that then spill out into the human population.
The practice has been widely condemned, with increasing calls from wildlife organisations, activists and the general public to ban these markets to prevent future outbreaks. On Monday 6 April 2020, The United Nations’ Biodiversity Chief, Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, became the latest person to call for a global ban on wildlife markets.
Using the example of the Ebola outbreak in west-central Africa and the Nipah virus in east Asia, the acting executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity argued that there are clear links between the destruction of nature and new human illnesses.
Ms. Mrema said:
“The message we are getting is if we don’t take care of nature, it will take care of us”
This sentiment was echoed by Adam Peyman, wildlife manager for the animal welfare organisation, Humane Society International who said: “The consumption of wild animals, especially wild mammals, which can carry diseases that can cross the species barrier, does pose a real threat to human health,”.
Scientists have long been drawing attention to outbreaks of human diseases that have originated in animals, including Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars), Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers) and the aforementioned Ebola and Nipah virus.
Wet markets have become commonplace in many countries across southeast Asia and feasting on exotic game such as civets, live wolf pups and pangolins is often seen as a sign of status and wealth across the region. China has placed a temporary ban on these markets in response to the recent outbreak but the country is increasingly facing pressure to make the ban permanent.
Supporting the call for a global ban on wildlife markets is Jinfeng Zhou, the Secretary-General of the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation who said:
“I agree there should be a global ban on wet markets, which will help a lot on wildlife conservation and protection of ourselves from improper contacts with wildlife…More than 70% of human diseases are from wildlife and many species are endangered by eating them.”
Elizabeth Maruma Mrema did note that any ban would have to be taken cautiously, saying:
“It would be good to ban the live animal markets as China has done and some countries. But we should also remember you have communities, particularly from low-income rural areas, particularly in Africa, which are dependent on wild animals to sustain the livelihoods of millions of people.”
Adding that: “unless we get alternatives for these communities, there might be a danger of opening up illegal trade in wild animals which currently is already leading us to the brink of extinction for some species.”
This concern is shared by Professor Dirk Preiffer of City University of Hong Kong who said:
“The people who are providing them, whether that’s farmed wild animals or animals from the wild, that’s an important source of income for them. Pushing it underground, that’s not the solution, so it needs to be a phased process.”
Ms. Mrema is optimistic that the world will take the consequences of the destruction of the natural environment more seriously as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The UN Biodiversity Chief argued that: “Preserving intact ecosystems and biodiversity will help us reduce the prevalence of some of these diseases. So the way we farm, the way we use the soils, the way we protect coastal ecosystems and the way we treat our forests will either wreck the future or help us live longer,”
In February 2020, representatives from over 140 countries met to consult on a draft 20-point agreement to halt and reverse biodiversity loss. The agreement includes proposals to protect almost a third of the world’s oceans and land as well as reduce the pollution caused by plastic waste and excess nutrients by 50%.
A major summit to sign the agreement, which was originally meant to take place in the Chinese city of Kunming in October has been postponed as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.