Survey-based data collection has suggested that negative public
perception towards wildlife trade, exotic wildlife consumption and
bats has significantly increased. 46% of participants believe that
disease transmission due to close contact between humans and exotic
wildlife will continue to cause future pandemics.
It has been nearly one-and-a-half years since what most of us thought
would be ‘some isolated virus in China’ has turned out to devastate
the entire globe. Since its first case in Wuhan, China, COVID-19, also
known as the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus-2
(SARS-CoV-2), has spread to 223 countries and territories.
As of June 2021, there have been around 182,300,000 cases and 3,948,000
deaths worldwide (according to the John Hopkins University tracker).
It is the largest pandemic in modern history, since the Spanish
Influenza (1918 to 1920) and the recent Ebola virus (2014 to 2016). What do
all these pandemics have in common? They are all suspected to have
originated from animals.
‘They are all suspected to have originated from animals.’
Zoonotic diseases are viruses, bacteria and pathogens which are
transmitted from animals to humans during close contact. It is
believed that 60% of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic in
nature—whilst researchers estimate that a further 650,000 to 840,000
existing zoonotic pathogens have not yet crossed from their animal
hosts into humans.
Instances where transmissions tend to occur have been traced back to
activities such as wildlife trade, wildlife consumption and even
habitat destruction. Many studies have evidence indicating that bats
may act as a natural reservoir for SARS-CoV-2-like viruses, as
coronavirus samples taken from a horseshoe bat showed to have a
genome that was 96% identical to the SARS-CoV-2 virus currently
spreading through humans.
However, bats are not the only source of zoonotic viruses, as SARS-CoV
has also been identified in civets and pangolins sold in Chinese wildlife
markets. Even the Ebola virus is thought to have been transmitted to
humans when people handled and consumed infected wildlife carcasses,
particularly those of apes.
How has COVID-19 affected public perception towards wildlife markets?
A WWF survey conducted in China, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and the
United States, one year on from the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic,
found that 30% of questioned participants have significantly decreased
or stopped consuming wildlife products due to the pandemic.
In all five surveyed countries, 85% of participants said they would
support government action to shut down wildlife trade and 88% supported
the stopping of deforestation. Two months after the initial outbreak
of COVID-19, the Chinese government imposed a nation-wide ban on the
consumption of wildlife products. In the WWF survey, 91% of the
Chinese participants agreed that this would be an effective measure
to stop future pandemics.
Another survey questioning Chinese participants with a higher education,
conducted by Manman Lu and colleagues in August 2020, found that
negative attitudes towards bats significantly outweigh positive attitudes.
In the nine months since COVID-19 began and the time they were
interviewed, the negative attitude towards bats increased by 14.7%.
The team also found that those who exhibited this view are also more
likely to support ecological culling and less likely to support bat
Overall 93.8% of the participants still opposed human consumption of
bats and bushmeat, likely due to the fact that the majority of the
participants believed that it is bats that are highly likely to be
responsible for the outbreak of COVID-19. The results from both surveys
show a contrast between the negative attitude towards bats, in a rare
culture that has actually praised them in the past.
Although the majority of the public believes that bats are responsible
for the COVID-19 outbreak, there has been no proof of a direct link
between the two. The coronavirus exhibited in bats may have a similarity
to SARS-CoV-2, but there is no evidence that it was bats which
transmitted SARS-Co2-2 to humans, nor that they carry this specific
This shows how the media can distort public perception; skewing
statements such as ‘bats may be a natural reservoir for harboring
SARS-CoV-2-like viruses’ to ‘Chinese man in Wuhan ate bat soup and
caused the outbreak of COVID-19’.
Bats: another victim of the COVID-19 pandemic
Public perception is often detrimental towards conservation efforts,
as for them to work in the long term, one needs the support of its
local people. Bats are vital ecosystem services, acting as insect
controllers, pollinators and seed dispersers.
In general, bats have not always had the best reputation amongst humans.
From their unique but perhaps not-so-pretty appearance, to their role
in deep-routed vampire folklore and blood consumption—they are commonly
not someone’s favorite animal.
However, as most other wild animals, the survival of bats is at risk
due to habitat destruction, hunting and even wind energy production.
Thus, convincing people on their ecological importance has proved not
to be the easiest task—particularly now since they are believed to be
the ‘culprit’ of the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak.
In the past, smaller disease pandemics—mostly those of which have
affected livestock—have attempted to be controlled via ‘ecological
culling’. This is the complete destruction of the vector (i.e. animal)
thought to be transmitting the disease and thus hindering any further
uncontrolled spread. Since the start of COVID-10 some regions in China
and Indonesia have implemented this strategy.
These practices are injurious to wildlife conservation efforts! Bats
are a very diverse group of animals, containing around 1400 known subspecies.
One thousand of these species are under threat, requiring both
conservation efforts and more research. Ecological culling practices
would result in the destruction of a species that has not been proved
to have caused the pandemic, aside from the fact that most of the bat
species likely do not even harbor a coronavirus.
Legal wildlife trade may pose a greater threat than illegal wildlife trade!
Illegal wildlife trade is not the only market policies should focus on
in order to prevent future zoonotic pandemics. An animal is an animal,
whether it is deemed a ‘legal commodity’ or not. A pathogen cannot and
will not distinguish between the two.
Prof. Vincent Nijman, Professor of Anthropology at Oxford-Brookes
University, argues that legal trade poses a greater threat than illegal
wildlife trade. Unlike livestock trade, both legal and illegal wildlife
trade undergo little regulations—legally traded wildlife is handled no
differently to illegally traded wildlife in terms of disease spread.
The United States, for example, does not have specific laws on
surveying wildlife products which enter the country; so, most imports
are not tested for disease presence. The United States Department of
Agriculture only imposes disease checks if there is a prior risk believed to
be associated with agricultural livestock products.
Wet markets, such as the Wuhan market in China, where COVID-19 is
believed to have originated, mostly sells non-domesticated,
legal wildlife products. It is the lack of hygiene
regulations in these markets which foster an ideal environment for
‘A pathogen cannot and will not distinguish between the two.’
National Geographic Journalist, Jonathan Kolby, described how
approximately 200 million live animals are imported legally into the
US each year. His experience as a past wildlife specialist and policy
advisory for the Fish and Wildlife Service, showed him that although
there is much focus on regulating the volume of illegal international
wildlife trade imports—often enough the zoonoviruses which enter the
country via legal products go unnoticed.
Legal wildlife trade is also a much larger market than illegal trade.
While illegal Wildlife trade generates a revenue of $7 to $20 billion
annually, being the third most expensive illegal market after drugs and
weapons trade, the monetary value of the legal wildlife market is up
to four times that, meaning it poses four times the threat.
Increased commercialization of wildlife allows larger scale and faster
disease transmission. Data collected which observed the animals present
in illegal wildlife trade, found that 88% of these species matched
those which are listed as possible vectors in the zoonotic disease
datasets. Thus, Clean Trade programs should be encouraged, so that
imported wildlife products must also be accompanied with a health
certificate, as is in the case for imported livestock.
How can we prevent another global zoonotic pandemic?
Addressing how we currently conduct land-use change and wildlife trade
will not only impact future disease transmission, but also a whole
array of other environmental issues. Whilst many governments, such as
China, believe a nationwide shutdown of wildlife markets is the way
to go, some policymakers believe that shutting down in-person markets
will just push them online to the dark web, where trafficking activity
is even more difficult to trace.
Additionally, a ban of all markets could undermine human rights and
risk exacerbating poverty, as many of these markets are legal. Wet
markets are simply a place where fresh produce is sold and should not
be synonymized with wildlife trade, as these are mostly associated with
illegal activity. Millions of urban and rural people rely on wet
markets for their food and livelihood.
Whilst wildlife trade gives products to the elite class—an aspect of
the trade which should be banned—it offers food security to some of
the country’s poorest people. Many rural communities, even indigenous
groups, rely on selling and consuming wildlife products, as well as
forest flora products. Thus, an overall ban could push people out of
these jobs and achieve the opposite effect by increasing means to
survive through illegal measures.
‘When it comes to decisions on policies to do with these issues, it
is vital to have the democratic engagement of locals.’
People should have the right to own, manage and use their traditional
lands in a sustainable way. Instead of banning wildlife trade
completely, indigenous communities should be used as examples of how
they have traditionally used their lands for thousands of years.
Sustainable wildlife trade can increase incentive for locals to protect
their local biodiversity, as its health is vital to keep the trade going.
Whilst heavy regulations should be introduced into wildlife trade, it
is important to include locals in the discussion and have their voices
heard. Meetings should be held to spread awareness on the consequences
of uncontrolled wildlife trade, biodiversity loss and how zoonotic
diseases spread. When it comes to decisions on policies to do with
these issues, it is vital to have the democratic engagement of
locals—introducing voting on possible policy changes and hearing the
advice of indigenous leaders.
Partnerships should be introduced between local communities, the
private sector and the government in order to implement measures to
prevent and control future zoonotic disease outbreaks. Whilst
introducing COVID-19 recovery funds should occur at a local level,
international collaboration between governments is key to isolate a
potential future pandemic.
Collaboration and the sharing of data is much more important than
competition for which country releases a successful vaccine first.
Featured Image: Denise Chan / Flickr
Aguirre A., Gore M., Kammer-Kerwick et al. (2021) Opportunities for
transdisciplinary science to mitigate biosecurity risks from the
intersectionality of illegal wildlife trade with emerging zoonotic pathogens.
Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution. Volume 9.
Borsky S., Hennighausen H., Leiter A. and Williges K. (2020) CITES
and the zoonotic disease content in international wildlife trade.
Environmental and Resource Economics. Volume 76, pages 1001-1017.