A vaccine against outbreaks: Ban wildlife trade
As Thailand and its neighbors scramble to contain the pandemic and panic, we urgently need to start building a response to the source of Covid-19, or risk having new outbreaks hit us even harder. There is good reason to believe that we know the source -- global wildlife trade -- and that there is a solution.
Scant attention is being paid by world leaders to the fact that Covid-19 jumped to people from wild critters on sale. Experts agree that the likely source this time was a bat, either transmitted directly to a person or through a pangolin, the world's most heavily trafficked mammal. Whichever animal it was in Wuhan, China, that passed Covid-19 to its first victims, it was either smuggled by a trafficker or supplied by captive breeders, many of whom stock their animals from traffickers.
But this virus is not just about China, bats or pangolins. Zoonotic outbreaks have hit us before, and they will hit us again if we keep over-exploiting animals.
In Africa, HIV (initially SIV) and Ebola both jumped from endangered primates to people, most likely through bush-meat trade; domesticated camels in the Middle East passed on deadly Mers; migrating water fowl infected poultry in busy Hong Kong markets, resulting in bird flu; civets offered on Chinese menus gave us Sars. All of these viruses led to sickness, deaths, and economic disruption.
China's 2003 response to Sars, another coronavirus, was to destroy 846,000 animals. That clearly was not the solution. With Covid-19, they have closed their wet markets and banned wildlife trade. Vietnam appears set to the same. What about Thailand?
How many Thailand residents realise that many of the pangolins, snakes and turtles trafficked into Wuhan and other Chinese markets transited the Kingdom? And that species trafficked from around the world also still end up in Chatuchak market, on secret menus in Bangkok and Pattaya, and for sale on social media?
The world's top virus experts agree that zoonotic outbreaks like Covid-19 will get worse as wild animal trade increases and wild animal habitats shrink. We need to re-think our relationship with the wild.
Conservationists have long been trying to convince world leaders and legislatures to prioritise laws and budgets that protect wild animals in their natural habitats, and to roll back the multi-billion dollar trade in wildlife that is driving the fastest rate of species loss in history. The usual response: "Wild animals need to take a back seat to national security and humanitarian needs," even though we have demonstrated that organised crime and insurgencies are linked to wildlife trafficking.
Perhaps one silver lining from Covid-19 is that it demonstrates that wildlife protection is integral to international security and human welfare.
Thailand has a newly improved wildlife law and is helping to draft an Asean plan to reduce wildlife trafficking across Southeast Asia. The Thailand-supported, Asean "Plan of Action" (POA) on Wildlife Trafficking is designed to protect wild animals from commercial poaching so that they are not trafficked across borders onto dodgy markets. It also features campaigns to kill the demand for rare and endangered species so that people don't get sick and cause extinction. But like Thai law, the Asean plan still allows for legal wildlife trade, and lacks high-level attention, funding and multi-agency implementation.
Thai officials and NGO partners, including our organisation, have been chomping at the bit to tighten and implement the Thai wildlife law and Asean Plan of Action. In letters to Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Varawut Silpa-archa this week, NGOs expressed their desire to see Thailand shut down wildlife markets and legal loopholes allowing some captive breeders to sell trafficked animals.
Thailand can play a leading roll in Southeast Asia to prevent zoonotic outbreaks from recurring, but it needs to lead by example by banning wildlife trade and including wildlife protection as part of its broader response to Covid-19. Thailand's lawmakers should further strengthen Thai wildlife law, increase resources for protection of wild animals and habitat, enact the Asean Plan of Action, and close down (not regulate) wildlife markets that remain on Thailand's streets and websites.
It is time to recognise that secure wildlife and wild habitats are critical investments and insurance policies for human security and economic stability.
Steven R Galster is the Founder of Freeland, an international counter-trafficking organisation (www.freeland.org and www.freeland.org/coronavirus-campaign). He has provided technical support to US, Thailand, and Asean wildlife programmes since 2000.