Conservation news

The wildlife trade threatens people and animals alike (commentary)

Wildlife in a market in Laos. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay

Wildlife in a market in Laos. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay

  • Princeton University professor of ecology, evolutionary biology, and public affairs David S. Wilcove argues that the coronavirus outbreak in China shows that the wildlife trade imperils more than animals: It puts people at risk of zoonotic diseases.
  • What do the coronavirus, HIV, and the impending extinction of the world’s rhinoceroses have in common? The answer is that they are all a result of the wildlife trade, a rapidly growing, multi-billion-dollar enterprise that is driving species to extinction, damaging ecosystems, and—increasingly—threatening human health.
  • What is most urgently needed is a change in cultural norms in cities around the world, especially in Asia and Africa: a recognition that keeping wild animals as pets or selling them for products (apart from sustainably caught seafood) is both a threat to the environment and to human health.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

What do the coronavirus, HIV, and the impending extinction of the world’s rhinoceroses have in common? The answer is that they are all a result of the wildlife trade, a rapidly growing, multi-billion-dollar enterprise that is driving species to extinction, damaging ecosystems, and—increasingly—threatening human health.

The coronavirus originated in a “seafood” market in Wuhan that sold much more than fish; Chinese authorities found everything from hedgehogs to wild boars to crocodiles for sale there, providing ideal conditions for viruses to jump to new hosts and, ultimately, to people. HIV can be traced to people killing and butchering chimpanzees for sale in the “bushmeat” trade. And all five of the world’s surviving rhinos face extinction as people hunt them for their horns, which are carved into status trinkets or ground up for their fictitious medicinal value.

Market in China. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay

A study published last fall in Science estimated that one in every four bird or mammal species on earth is caught up in the wildlife trade. Add the reptiles, amphibians, and tropical fish, and we are talking about thousands of species that are being taken from the wild and sold as food, pets, or products in legal and illegal markets around the world. The illegal component alone may be comparable in value to the trafficking of weapons or drugs.

Scientists increasingly talk about an “empty forest” syndrome – seemingly intact tropical forests where the large mammals and birds have been hunted to extinction, and the desirable songbirds have been trapped for sale as pets. Unless this trade in wildlife is curbed, we face a future of accelerating animal extinctions, forests devoid of their important species, and, most alarmingly, disease epidemics. So, what can be done?

Caged birds in Jakarta’s bird market. Photo by David Wilcove.

There is an international treaty, the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), designed to prevent international commerce in endangered species. However, in a study we published last year, University of Chicago economist Eyal Frank and I showed that over a quarter of imperiled species caught up in the international wildlife trade have yet to be protected under CITES. The process for identifying and protecting such species must be expedited, and funding for enforcement of CITES must be increased.

CITES can help to prevent the extinction of species traded between nations, but it is powerless to stop the domestic wildlife trade within nations. Yet a disease that originates in a market in Wuhan or in any city in any country can quickly become a global threat when an infected person boards a plane or train. The bottom line is that any country’s wildlife trade poses a threat to all countries.

Wealthy countries like the United States can play a useful role without being seen as meddling in the affairs of other nations. Through foreign aid and technical assistance, we can help developing nations increase their food security, thereby reducing the need to consume wild animals. And we can help them to strengthen enforcement of their wildlife protection laws, while boosting our own customs inspections.

Individual states can help, too. In December, Governor Cuomo signed into law the “Save Our Species Bill” that gives New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation the authority to ban trade in the state of any species (or parts thereof) it considers to be in danger of extinction.

Southern white rhino (Ceratotherium simum simum) in Kruger National Park, South Africa. Rhinos are threatened by demand for their horn for use in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

But what is most urgently needed is a change in cultural norms in cities around the world, especially in Asia and Africa: a recognition that keeping wild animals as pets or selling them for products (apart from sustainably caught seafood) is both a threat to the environment and a threat to human health. This change has to come from within; it cannot be imposed by other countries.

This will be an enormous challenge, but there are at least a few hopeful signs. In China, for example, the popularity of shark-fin soup, a delicacy that requires the killing of millions of sharks every year, has plummeted as younger people reject this destructive tradition. A well-crafted public relations campaign led by celebrities played an important role in changing attitudes.

It will take countless more efforts like this to suppress the global wildlife trade. In the meantime, we are all at risk.

David S. Wilcove is a professor of ecology, evolutionary biology, and public affairs at Princeton University.