Experts call for global ban on live animal markets, wildlife trade amidst coronavirus outbreak
200 individuals, organizations issue open letter warning of risks to human, animal health
As the coronavirus outbreak continues, a group of scientists and experts are calling on governments around the world to "reduce the risk of future infectious disease epidemics" by closing wildlife markets, reducing demand for live wild animals and ending the exploitation of wild animals for trade.
Last week, more than 200 individuals and organizations issued an open letter to world health authorities urging them to work with governments to take global action.
They warned that the rapid expansion of live wild animal markets, also known as wet markets, is "increasing the risks to global human and animal health, compromising animal welfare, and placing biodiversity under sustainable pressure."
The current outbreak of the COVID-19 virus has been linked to markets selling live animals in the city of Wuhan, China. Last month the Chinese government issued a nationwide temporary ban on the trading of wild animals, according to state news agency Xinhua.
But many experts want these measures to be made permanent, and others want to see a global ban.
A 'global problem'
"Really, it's not about one country," Cassandra Koenen, from the international non-profit World Animal Protection (WAP), told The Current's host Matt Galloway.
"It's a global problem that needs a global solution. And it's really time to bring an end to the global wildlife trade."
Koenen says that many wild animals being traded are ending up in people's homes as exotic pets, including in Canada. A study from WAP estimates that there are 1.4 million exotic pets in Canadian homes and backyards.
"Here in Canada, it's against the law to keep a raccoon or a skunk. But we don't seem to have a problem keeping other people's backyard wildlife in our home," she said.
"So you'll see people with ball pythons, with iguanas."
She says in Japan, there is a growing trend of owning baby otters as pets. There are also otter cafes where visitors can interact with the animals for a fee.
Koenen says WAP investigated the origins of these otters and found they were part of an illegal trade originating in Indonesia.
"And these animals are ending up in these cafes and in people's homes in Japan," she said.
Animal trade linked to viral outbreaks
Previous viral outbreaks around the world have also been linked to wet markets and animal trade.
Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, which killed about 500 people in 2015, was associated with camels. The Ebola, Marburg and SARS viruses are all thought to have originated in bats.
"The same dangers exist everywhere," said James Gorman, a science reporter for The New York Times.
Gorman recently wrote about suspicions that pangolins, the world's most trafficked mammal, may be a source of the COVID-19 virus.
"Essentially, when humans come into more contact with animals in greater numbers, and we live in dense numbers ... we're going to come in contact with new viruses," he said.
"Some of those viruses are going to be able to make that jump from animals to us."
Gorman says that the only way to reduce the risk is to shut down markets selling live animals and ban wildlife trade.
However, he notes that actually reducing trade will require a culture change. For example, in China, certain animals are valued because they're considered to be traditional cuisine or delicacies.
But he is noticing a culture shift, at least online.
"There's evidence on social media [from] people in China who are outraged by the government handling of the outbreak, and who are very fearful, [that] there's starting to be a movement that you can't eat wild animals," he said.
The problem with bans
Others, meanwhile, think a ban on wildlife trade would be ineffective.
Dan Challender, a postdoctoral researcher who studies illegal wildlife trade at the University of Oxford, says that legislative bans tend to fail for a number of reasons, from poor enforcement to lack of technical and human resources.
He says that some historical case studies, like alcohol prohibition in the 1930s in the U.S., show that even when a ban is in place, there are people willing to break the rules to engage in trade as long as there are customers.
"So while you do have a ban in place, if it isn't enforced well, and typically wildlife trade bans suffer from imperfect enforcement, then you get an illegal trade," Challender said. "And that's difficult because it's hard to monitor."
Instead of a ban, Challender calls for better regulation.
"It's about governments taking responsibility for this themselves and working with partner countries to ensure that the wildlife trade is regulated and doesn't affect the species in the wild."
Written by Althea Manasan. Produced by Ben Jamieson.