The new Corona virus, that has by now killed thousands of people and infected a hundred times more, arose from animals. More precisely, it probably jumped from animals to humans at a wildlife market in Wuhan. Not only are such markets highly problematic because of diseases, as is the case here, but also for conservation reasons.
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The wildlife markets in China not only sell pork, seafood, beef and other things that are also common in Europe. They offer a variety of exotic meat and live animals, ranging from pangolins and snakes to porcupines and rodents. Some of them are also alive, and some are highly endangered. For example, last year, a group of conservationists found a group of 10 000 live birds illegally trafficked, including critically endangered yellow-breasted buntings.
Wildlife markets are highly problematic for two reasons. Firstly, the animals are kept in awful conditions, with injuries, without food or water, so the high stress makes them more susceptible to disease. In addition, as they occur in very high densities and live in small cages, disease transmission between them and to humans is easy. The last corona virus outbreak, SARS, in 2003 also originated in wildlife markets. Therefore, already for the sake of human health (and animal welfare), they should be closed.
Illegal wildlife trade: a massive problem in conservation
Markets are also a central location for wildlife trade. While wildlife trade is sometimes completely sustainable and legal, it can also be a siginificant threat to many species. Illegal wildlife trade is a particularly large problem in China due to traditional Chinese medicine and the popularity of wildlife meat. Unsustainable illegal wildlife trade is the main cause of the decline of many animals, including elephants, rhinos, saigas, otters, pangolins and numerous others.
Illegal wildlife trade represents a great challenge to conservation, as it is incredibly hard to control. Entire criminal networks of poachers, smugglers, and sellers exist, similar to drug and human trafficking networks. The main problem is that as a consequence, there is very little accurate information about the scale of the trade, making it hard to know its effect. However, the value of the illegal trade is currently estimated to be be between $ 5 billion and $ 20 billion annualy. While there is international commitment to stop illegal wildlife trade, for example through CITES, it is incredibly hard to control these networks and prevent trade.
Following the eruption of the Corona virus, the Chinese authorities have decided to ban both trade and consumption of wild animals. It is certainly time for this ban, both for health reasons and for conservation gains. However, a danger remains that the wildlife market only shifts underground rather than disappears. That’s because such bans are very hard to enforce. Let’s hope that the ban works and wildlife trading stops. This would be a win for healthcare, animal welfare and conservation alike.