The emergence of the current global COVID-19 pandemic echoes past viral outbreaks that demonstrate a recurring nexus between human health and wildlife conservation issues. The disease, like similar viruses before it, appears to have emerged after passing from wildlife to people — in this case likely originating from a bat. This transmission is thought to have taken place in a so-called “wet market” where wildlife and domesticated animals are kept in tightly confined unsanitary conditions.
Despite efforts to regulate this trade, vast numbers of animals are still trafficked around the world each year. For example, 25 million live wild animals are imported into the United States annually. One aspect of this trade that has so far received insufficient attention in the U.S. is the enormous scale of the trade in wild birds across Asia. Millions of birds from hundreds of species are traded in markets there every year. The birds are displayed for sale as pets or for food, often densely packed into crowded cages — and frequently close to other wildlife species including monkeys, bats, cats and domesticated species such as chickens. One study found that nearly 20,000 birds from more than 200 species were traded during a period of just three days in bird markets in Jakarta, Indonesia. This trade should be stopped now for the good of wild birds, other wildlife and human health.
In terms of biodiversity loss, the demand for wild birds in Asia has led to a vacuum effect in which birds are being “sucked out” of forests by bird trappers in unimaginable numbers — pushing many populations and indeed some full species such as the black-winged myna, Javan hawk-eagle and straw-headed bulbul towards extinction. The helmeted hornbill has also been decimated by trade in its casque (the large decorated parts of the bird’s upper mandible). These are carved like elephant ivory into complex designs for sale to wealthy collectors. West Africa has a similar but less extensive internal trade in vulture parts for misguided medicinal use, and there is a large trade in songbirds and other pet species in South America.
It is clear that large and often unsanitary bird markets have the potential to harbor more disease time bombs waiting to detonate (though wild birds do not represent a disease threat to people under normal circumstances in healthy ecosystems). The new coronavirus pandemic — following on from SARS and other diseases that made the transition from animals to people — surely indicates that it is time to close the primary origin of these diseases: the global trade in wildlife — including exotic bird markets flourishing in Asia and elsewhere. The human cost of only one such disease outbreak is just too great, as evidenced by the currently unfolding global shutdown.
Halting this global trade is also the right thing to do for birds and other wildlife. The U.S. (in 1992) and Europe (in 2007) have already halted the large-scale import of wild birds from the tropics. In Europe’s case this was primarily for human health reasons — the British government did an abrupt U-turn to support the move after a quarantined parrot in the United Kingdom died from H5N1 — a deadly flu strain that had previously killed dozens of people in Asia. China has placed temporary bans on certain wildlife trade in the past, and has done so again in a limited manner in response to COVID-19, but bans enacted after SARS in 2003 were later abandoned. This time it needs to be different and not restricted solely to China or to certain wildlife species. While these problems have been especially acute in Asia thus far, this trade is worldwide in nature and should be addressed at a global scale.
The trade in wildlife is not sustainable in its current form. To feed it, many birds and other animals will vanish, never to be replaced — and it clearly has the potential to endanger thousands or millions of people if another novel pathogen emerges from just one of these markets that are potential “petri dishes” of new diseases. We must now take steps to halt this trade to allow wild birds and other animals to recover from what has been decades of unsustainable trapping throughout the world’s tropics — and to safeguard people from what is a predictable potential source of future pandemics. The U.S. government should eliminate all loopholes in our own wildlife trade laws and encourage other countries to also abandon the wildlife trade. Action by the Department of State and the U.S. Trade and Development Agency to request that our global trading partners close large-scale bird and other wildlife markets, police illegal trapping and develop economic alternatives would demonstrate real progress toward getting this issue resolved — making both wildlife and people around the world safer in the process.
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