As the world continues to grapple with the pandemic, illegal wildlife trade remains one of the greatest threats to biodiversity. But have we learnt any lessons?
By now, it is clear that the pandemic has been a devastating wake-up call to the risks of zoonotic diseases in humans. Coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan, China, in late 2019, is believed to have jumped from an animal to human in a ‘zoonotic spillover’ event.
Lately, Wuhan completely banned the consumption of wild animals and made wildlife trade illegal. The ban includes all terrestrial animals, animals that live and reproduce in the wilderness and precious aquatic wild animals. In April, the Chinese ministry of agriculture and rural affairs compiled a list of “special livestock”, including non-domesticated animals like reindeer, alpacas, guinea fowls, ostriches and emus, which can be farmed for meat, as well as mink, silver fox, arctic fox and raccoon dog, which can be farmed for fur. China has also upgraded the protection of the pangolin to that of first-class protected animals on a par with endangered species like giant pandas.
The Duke of Cambridge is also backing efforts to ‘end the illegal wildlife trade for good’, as a new report highlights the global threat of such criminal activity. Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a money laundering and terrorism funding watchdog, said it is concerned about the lack of focus on the financial aspects of the major crime, which it estimates to be worth between $7 and $23 billion per year.
Closer home, a few months back, a disturbing sight of a whale shark carcass, found without the fins and tail on a Goa beach, suggested that urgent action is needed when it comes to protecting animals in the wild. “Whale sharks are vital to the food chain in the water world. We need to save such endangered species to sustain healthy marine life,” says veteran actor and activist Nafisa Ali Sodhi.
As the world continues to grapple with the devastating consequences of Covid-19, illegal wildlife trade remains one of the greatest threats to biodiversity not only in India, but across the globe. WWF International is calling for urgent global action to address the key drivers, which will cause future zoonotic disease outbreaks—in a new research, scientists from China have, in fact, identified a “recently emerged” strain of influenza virus that is infecting Chinese pigs and that has the potential of triggering a pandemic.
In an online report, WWF says environmental factors driving the emergence of zoonotic diseases are trade and consumption of high-risk wildlife, land-use change leading to deforestation and conversion, expansion of agriculture, etc. Numerous warnings from scientists and thought leaders, such as the World Economic Forum (WEF), have come about the risk of a global pandemic. “We must recognise the links between the destruction of nature and human health, or we will soon see the next pandemic. We must curb the trade of wildlife, halt deforestation and land conversion, and manage food production sustainably,” says Marco Lambertini, director general, WWF International.
A study conducted by TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network, found a significant increase in reported poaching of wild animals in India during the lockdown period. “Species are being systematically wiped out by organised trade networks, with new poaching techniques and trade routes emerging faster than we can respond to them. The pandemic, which is an important example of the negative repercussions of this exploitative trade, hasn’t deterred wildlife traders and this is only exacerbated by the increased demand for Traditional Chinese Medicines (TMC). Many of the highest trafficked species are reptiles and amphibians like the tokay gecko, spiny-tailed lizard, tortoises and freshwater turtles, with data on this trade yet to be quantified,” says Noida-based Trisha Ghose, project director, The Habitats Trust, a not-for-profit organisation working towards the protection and conservation of habitats and their indigenous species.
Guwahati-based Aaranyak is an organisation with the mission to protect the eastern Himalayan biodiversity. Bibhab Kumar Talukdar, its secretary general and CEO, finds illegal wildlife trade the fourth largest illicit trade after narcotics, human trafficking and arms smuggling. “India gives shelter to a number of threatened species, of which some species—such as the rhino, tiger, Himalayan black bear, elephant, pangolin and musk deer, to name a few—and their body parts are being traded illegally because of demand in some Asian countries such as China, Vietnam, Laos, etc. Illegal wildlife smuggling is an emerging threat to India’s unique wildlife heritage… plus, it poses severe threats to national security,” he says.