Wildlife trafficking and its role in the spread of COVID-19

As the world faces a horrible pandemic in the form of COVID-19, times are uncertain in this global crisis. Governments across the world call for lockdown of their countries. Businesses, schools, institutions everywhere are closed down for the time being. Cities and towns are silenced as everyone is called to stay at home.

Yet, conservation doesn’t go on lockdown even when the world is upside down. We honor the field rangers, veterinarians, technicians, anti-poaching staff and everyone else that are involved in the noble act of conserving our earth’s beautiful animals.

During this pandemic focus is put even more on wildlife trafficking, which many authorities say play a role in the spread of the corona virus across countries. Wildlife trafficking is a deadly, criminal business which involves the unlawful harvest of and trade in live animals and plants, or products that come from them. Wildlife is traded as skins, leather goods or souvenirs; as food or traditional medicine; as pets and various other miscellaneous forms. Wildlife trafficking causes a serious threat to wild animals and biodiversity; and what makes it seriously unacceptable is the fact that it is wholly unsustainable. It irrevocably harms wildlife populations and pushes endangered species toward extinction. We are currently going through the fastest rate of species lost ever in history!
Wild animal trades can lead to outbreak of diseases across countries via wet markets. Wet markets are markets that sell live poultry, fish, reptiles and mammals of every kind. There has been reports of the corona virus breaking out at a wet market in Wuhan and this has raised some concerns regarding the consumption of wild meat possibly transmitting the virus. For this reason, China has recently banned the consumption of wildlife animals and thus closed down wet markets all over the country.

But wet markets also sell all kinds of other fresh produce like fruits and vegetables. Across the world, wet markets are an important part of the local economy and an important source of food for people. There is also no proof that the virus is transmitted through eating any meat. It can, however, be transmitted in unhygienic conditions by someone that is COVID-19 positive and handling the produce. Current evidence shows that although corona viruses look to be stable at low and freezing temperatures for a certain time, food hygiene and good food safety practices can prevent their transmission. Thus the outbreak at Wuhan has only highlighted the common unhygienic conditions of wet markets that should be addressed.

China has now decided to reopen its wet markets again, much to the relieve of the people, and rightly so. Wet markets is not the real problem; unhygienic conditions together with the trade of wildlife is. Problems arise when the legal market is used by criminals to sell trafficked animals, and where wildlife is kept, sold and butchered in unhygienic conditions.

While China has banned wildlife’s consumption, it has not prohibited its use in medicine, and that is still a huge problem. Bear bile and rhino horn are now recommended to treat COVID-19. Bear bile contains ursodeoxycholic acid that can help dissolve gallstones and treat liver disease and can even be anti-inflammatory, but there is no evidence that it can treat COVID-19. According to the World Health Organisation, there exists no cure against the virus at this stage. Rhino horn is made of keratin, the same protein found in human nails or hair. It has not been proven to have medicinal value in curing viruses.

As the world focuses on the COVID-19 pandemic, this is an opportune time to put the spotlight on illegal wildlife trafficking; highlighting how it plays a role in spreading diseases worldwide and demanding of authorities and governments to take action against the awful crime of the cruel trade of animals.

As of now, we aren’t sure what will happen to our trip that is scheduled to take place at the end of the year. We will take all factors into consideration when deciding what the way forward should be. For now, we will continue to plan and raise funds for our trip with the most positive outlook we can muster.

If we are able to continue with our trip, we will make sure to educate the communities we come across on the repercussions of poaching, and how in the grand scheme of things, detriment of animals actually leads to the detriment of man – something that COVID-19 has made painfully obvious.

Vet Books for Africa will stay committed to its mission during these trying times. And with COVID-19 putting a spotlight on the illegal trade of wildlife, we hope that some good will come out of these tragic times and that conservationist’s voices across the world will be heard with new attention and received with more seriousness.