Wildlife crime

Wildlife smuggling and zoonotic diseases

The outbreak of the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is a major health emergency that has been characterized as a pandemic by the World Health Organization. The first cases were detected in Wuhan, China, and it has rapidly spread across the globe in the first quarter of 2020, affecting populations in over 200 countries and territories and impacting entire communities, societies and economies.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a wake-up call to rethink global approaches to protecting natural resources and ultimately the health of billions of people. According to ongoing research, COVID19 is likely linked to a zoonotic pathogen in wild bats that may have passed to humans, possibly via an intermediary. While there is no conclusive evidence to date, initial findings suggested that the pangolin, a scaly anteater, which is a reservoir of coronaviruses that genetically resemble that which caused COVID-19, may have been a such an intermediary and could be a source of similar viruses in the future.

Despite the international ban on trade of all pangolin species since January 2017, pangolins remain the world’s most trafficked mammal for consumption of their meat and the use of their scales in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). UNODC’s latest research indicates that more than 70% of seizures of African pangolin in the period from 2007 through 2018 were destined to China, while about 19% were destined to Viet Nam. In 2019, Singaporean authorities confiscated 25 tonnes of African pangolin scales (equal to approximately 50,000 animals at a black-market value of US$7 million), shipped from Nigeria and destined for consumption in China and Viet Nam. This clearly demonstrates the transnational nature of wildlife trafficking, threatening not only biodiversity, but also biosafety with long-term health, security and economic consequences.

The transmission of coronaviruses and other zoonotic pathogens to humans is made possible due to the close contact between animals and humans. Wild animals, especially those living in large colonies such as bats, are reservoirs of viruses that can mutate, beyond the knowledge of or prediction by science, which can have lethal effects on humans. In virtually every country in Southeast and East Asia it is possible to find wet markets, pet markets (exotic pets), restaurants specialized in wild meat, TCM shops, as well as captive breeding facilities, that supply an evergrowing demand for rare wildlife products. While most wet markets in Asia comply with sanitary standards and do not pose any significant risk to human health, some of these markets operate outside of these standards and openly trade in wild and exotic meat. Conditions in such establishments carry immense risk for similar outbreaks in the future. For instance, some wet and pet markets host wild animals transported from highly diverse ecosystems found in different latitudes of the planet. By clustering these animals in the same limited space, viruses are more likely to jump from one host to another, and these facilities can become ground zero for the next zoonotic disease.

The transmission of zoonotic diseases has wide-reaching negative consequences. In addition to the major global health impact – more than two million cases of COVID-19 as of mid-April 2020 - the economic impact of COVID-19 may result in up to $2.7 trillion US dollars in lost output and as high as 30% of the global economic decline.9 The OECD interim economic assessment estimates that the global economic growth could be halved with a negative GDP across regions.10 This will have a dramatic negative impact on the global economy in both the short and longer term, with the most vulnerable populations being hit the hardest. The impact is also being felt by wildlife authorities, particularly in countries where operational budgets, including for salaries, are highly dependent on the revenue generated by tourism.

Need for action

In the wake of the crisis, solutions are being deployed to manage the pandemic and its farreaching impact and to prevent similar outbreaks in the future. Tackling illicit wildlife trafficking is key to preventing future pandemics stemming from zoonotic pathogens. While there is large scale legal and sustainable trade, a parallel illegal trade has been targeting wild species trafficked largely to Asia from all over the world or bred in captivity – as demonstrated by the recent seizures of over 45,000 live birds, and animal parts that can be attributed to an equivalent of 2,200 tigers and 3,800 bears, and many other species across several countries in Asia. Consumption is driven by wealth – i.e. status symbols, as many wildlife products are now considered luxury items - or cultural belief – e.g. alleged healing or reinvigorating properties of such products.

The existence of parallel wildlife trade markets -illegal alongside legal- makes the enforcement and security measures against wildlife trafficking ever more relevant to prevent a similar crisis in the future. Illegally sourced wildlife traded in a clandestine way escapes any sanitary control and exposes human beings to the transmission of new viruses and other pathogens. Without human interference through capturing, slaughtering, selling, trafficking, trading and consuming of wildlife, the evolution and transmission of the COVID-19 coronavirus would have been highly unlikely.

Read the whole paper here: Preventing future pandemics of zoonotic origin by combating wildlife crime: protecting global health, security and economy