Zoonotic diseases infect up to 1 billion people per year, and the current COVID-19 pandemic has made it abundantly clear that they can have devastating impacts on global health and economic security.
Reports have shown that 71% of all emerging infectious diseases in the past several decades have originated from wild animals. The frequency of major outbreaks is increasing, so urgent action to address this problem is needed.
Previous zoonotic diseases, such as Ebola, SARS, AIDS, and Nipah, emerged from wildlife and we are likely to experience others. As COVID-19 originated from horseshoe bats and jumped into humans via an intermediate host – perhaps pangolins in the wildlife trade as some studies suggest – we are clearly vulnerable to other emerging infectious diseases from coronaviruses.
Since the COVID-19 outbreak was linked to wildlife, many governments around the globe have taken action to limit further pandemics. These actions provide examples for other governments and should guide us in supporting a more comprehensive response:
1. Public awareness to reduce demand – In the last two months, WildAid expanded its communications campaigns in China and Vietnam on ending consumption of wildlife with over 250 new billboards and 25,000 ads on video screens in prominent locations within 20 cities, while promoting video messages to protect pangolins on TV and social media, which have reached more than 300 million consumers. Vietnam’s top business leaders joined a pledge never to consume wildlife as they called on their government to end the trade. A new TV talk show series debuted in Thailand to highlight wildlife trade links to pandemic risk. These efforts will be sustained with new campaigns launching in the coming weeks.
2. New laws – To replace laws that were lacking and providing loopholes for ongoing wildlife trade and farming, several countries have already enacted new legislation, such as China’s new list of prohibited species and bans on live animal sales in markets, Malawi’s new ban on bushmeat, and Gabon’s ban on trading pangolins and bats.
3. Stiffer penalties – Uganda’s new wildlife act now contains some of the strictest penalties for wildlife crime anywhere in the world. Certain wildlife crimes now carry life imprisonment and fines of up to the equivalent of US$5.4 million. Two sentences handed down in late 2019 saw unprecedented ten-year jail sentences for hippo poachers who were first-time offenders.
4. Stricter enforcement – In light of the closure of international and domestic tourism due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Uganda’s wildlife authority has moved their tourism staff to law enforcement duties, conducting more foot patrols and more arrests than ever before. Nigerian customs authorities are cracking down on the illegal trade; a massive seizure of 9.5 tons of pangolin scales was made in February 2020. However, Nigeria is becoming an illegal hub for wildlife traffickers in the region, as a lot more could be done with law enforcement to track down and prosecute the illicit traders. Strengthening legal enforcement will require more effective collaboration between various agencies, notably the Nigeria Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (NESREA), Customs and the Police Services.
Meanwhile, recent efforts by China Customs demonstrate the success of combined focus on enforcement and awareness. In the largest campaign to date, WildAid collaborated with China Customs on a nationwide campaign that placed over 6,000 billboards and posters at 150 border crossings and transit locations to remind travelers that it’s illegal to bring ivory products into the country. Chinese Customs also tuned its body and luggage scanners to identify ivory and has since seized 5,323 pieces in 785 cases. Their crackdown resulted in the arrest of 171 suspects and seizure of 500.5 tons of endangered species products, including 8.48 tons of ivory. We hope to replicate these joint efforts with a focus on wildlife meat for consumption as soon as lockdowns end.
5. Early detection – Pathogen surveillance and public health monitoring play a key role in identifying risks and specific sources of emerging infectious diseases. After the Ebola outbreak, the US government’s PREDICT program with EcoHealth Alliance, UC Davis, and many others in the zoonotic disease field established critical capacity for research and monitoring, which are needed now more than ever. New research from the Wildlife Conservation Society is already helping us better understand the risks; for example, their new report from Vietnam shows coronavirus prevalence rates and risk of infection in rats sold into the wildlife trade increased from 20% to 55% as the rats became increasingly stressed from moving through the supply chain, going from initial seller to market to restaurant.
This is only the beginning, and we must redouble our efforts to expand these responses as quickly as we can to prevent future pandemics. An effective response requires a global response and strong cooperation. WildAid has joined with the Wildlife Conservation Society and Global Wildlife Conservation to form the Coalition to End the Trade, which has launched a global petition endorsed by almost 400 conservation groups around the world. We are seeking the adoption of a global resolution through multiple international fora to garner governmental commitment to end the commercial wild animal trade for consumption.
Working with governments in key countries across Asia and Africa, WildAid wants to use its proven network, as well as its anti-wildlife consumption and anti-poaching campaigns, to close down these live wildlife markets and reduce demand for such products to prevent another pandemic.
World Zoonoses Day is observed on July 6 every year to commemorate the scientific achievement of administering the first vaccination against a zoonotic disease. Zoonoses are infectious diseases caused by bacteria, viruses and parasites that spread between animals and humans. It was on July 6, 1885, that Louis Pasteur successfully administered the first vaccine against Rabies virus, a zoonotic disease.
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WildAid is a non-profit organization with a mission to protect wildlife from illegal trade and other imminent threats. While most wildlife conservation groups focus on protecting animals from poaching, WildAid primarily works to reduce global consumption of wildlife products such as elephant ivory, rhino horn and shark fin soup. With an unrivaled portfolio of celebrity ambassadors and a global network of media partners, WildAid leverages more than $308 million in annual pro-bono media support with a simple message: When the Buying Stops, the Killing Can Too.
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