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The Covid-19 question: How do we prevent future pandemics?

Primate for sale at wild animal market in Jakarta, Indonesia. Image courtesy of Freeland.

  • The EndPandemics alliance brings together various groups working to prevent future zoonotic disease outbreaks by ending the wildlife trade and the destruction of nature, and transforming agriculture.
  • Its founders say wildlife markets, such as the one in Wuhan from where COVID-19 is believed to have originated, are ticking time bombs where animal-borne viruses can enter the human population.
  • Also helping drive humans and wildlife into closer contact is deforestation, including for agriculture such as oil palm; a bat found near an oil palm plantation in Guinea is believed to have sparked the worst outbreak yet of Ebola.
  • EndPandemics’ founders say these destructive practices are allowed to persist because they’re lucrative, but argue that the cost of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic is far greater.

I think about that bat a lot. You know the bat I mean. I think about how it was likely captured from a forest in China— or perhaps somewhere further away, maybe Vietnam, Cambodia, or Indonesia? Perhaps its death came mercifully swiftly. Or maybe it was stuffed in a cage and transported live via plane, motorbike or truck to a wildlife market in Wuhan, China. If so, its last days were certainly spent in terror and confusion; maybe it was already sick and dying. In its small mammalian brain, this little flying rodent was suffering. And somewhere along the way, likely in the market itself, this bat shed something that would change the world: a novel coronavirus.

“We’ve essentially stuck our fingers into a hornets’ nest. Hornets don’t bother people unless we bother them. It’s the same situation here,” says Steven Galster, the founder of conservation group Freeland.

Galster, like many scientists, argues that the COVID-19 pandemic came about because of the combination of a booming commercial wildlife trade and the destruction of nature. Both these trends have put people in ever closer contact with wild species that host viruses like the one that causes COVID-19.

“We had all been warning this could happen,” Galster adds. Indeed, over my decade-plus as an environmental journalist, I’d heard innumerable scientists raise this warning time and time again. And often gone completely unheeded.

‘Sense of shared purpose’

COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, meaning it originated with an animal. While much remains to be learned about its origins, most researchers believe it came from a bat. It may then have jumped from the bat to a pangolin (potentially a captive animal as well) before it entered its first human host. From there, it spread like fire throughout Wuhan and then on airplanes to every continent on Earth, even reaching Antarctica in December 2020.

In March 2020, just as COVID-19 was really beginning to flex its muscles as an international catastrophe, Galster met online with nine other experts to discuss measures to campaign against the sort of practices that got us here. This group grew widely from there.

A ground pangolin, rescued from a trafficker, being rehabilitated back into the wild in Zimbabwe. There are currently eight species of pangolin, four in Africa and four in Asia. All of them are imperiled by the global wildlife trade. Image by: Niall McCann

Today, the new collaboration known as EndPandemics has a stunning 35 partnering organizations, including conservation groups on the front lines of the wildlife trade, agencies that work in health and human trafficking, and some on the cutting edge of finance.

“The sense of shared purpose was clear from the start,” says Niall McCann, the conservation director of National Park Rescue, who, with Galster, serves as rotating chair of EndPandemics. “Here was an alliance of dozens of individuals and organizations from diverse backgrounds who were united by the desire to end pandemics and make the world a better place.”

McCann says EndPandemics stands out because of its unusual partnerships.

“We are not a forum of concerned citizens, a research institution or a sci-comm platform,” he says. “We are an alliance of practitioners from multiple sectors who realize that they key to achieving positive change is combining our skills, knowledge and resources to achieve our ultimate goal.”

That ultimate goal is clear-cut: ending pandemics by putting a stop to the wildlife trade and the destruction of nature, and transforming agriculture. Simple, yes, but the obstacles to getting there are immense, even after the excruciating lesson of COVID-19.

‘Pale into insignificance’

COVID-19 has left the world as we once knew it in wreckage. The respiratory disease has killed more than 2 million people to date, left millions more unemployed, crippled national economies, and tested the mental health of billions as we adapt to a constant kind of quarantine, consisting alternately of boredom, loneliness, and, for some, despair. Despite this, many of the world’s governments and institutions have taken little action to date to counter the trends that got us here.

Infant leopards seized from a Middle Eastern trafficker at Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport in Thailand as he was en route to Dubai, circa 2008. Photo courtesy of Freeland.

In February of 2020, China did ban wildlife trade for consumption in response to the then burgeoning pandemic. But a year later, McCann says there remain “many loopholes,” including ongoing legal trade in wild animals for Chinese traditional medicine or other purposes, such as fur.

“Viruses don’t discriminate … so the law shouldn’t discriminate either,” he says. For example, we don’t know if the initial host, potentially that bat, was meant for food or medicine — and to the virus it didn’t matter.

Vietnam has arguably acted more aggressively than any other nation in the region, banning wildlife products, markets, and online sales. Prior to this year, experts viewed Vietnam as one of the largest countries in the region for trading wildlife.

“It is very pleasing to see the country — with enthusiastic backing from the prime minister — taking a lead on this, though there is still much to do,” McCann says.

In other countries, though, many wildlife markets remain open, with Galster pointing to both Thailand and Indonesia as examples.

“All wildlife markets, anywhere, represent ‘ticking time bombs,’” he says, “but especially ones where species are mixed together from different parts of the world, alive and dead, and the chances of viruses jumping from one to another, or straight to consumers, is high.”

While it may be perplexing that any government on the face of the Earth would, after the last year, keep open markets that sell wildlife commercially for food or medicine, McCann says the reason is obvious: money.

Thai shoppers photographing African meerakats sold in Bangkok’s Chatuchak (JJ) market in February 2021. Photo courtesy of Freeland.

“In China alone, the legal trade in wildlife is valued at $74 billion and is a source of income or employment for up to 14 million people,” he says.

However, he adds, such numbers “pale into insignificance next to the cost … of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Galster says governments should create transition programs for those currently making a living off the wildlife trade, in order to move them into a new line of employment. Galster also adds that EndPandemics is not targeting subsistence hunting by Indigenous people or recreational hunting.

“We are talking about commercial trade in wild animals, which has become a multibillion-dollar industry that is way out of control,” he says, adding that “a lot of people made money on human trafficking supply chains, but we still banned slavery. We are at that point in our history with wildlife trade.”

‘Conservationists are Earth’s doctors’

While a few nations are moving to tackle the legal wildlife trade in the wake of COVID-19, the same cannot really be said for deforestation.

Scientists have long argued that the destruction of habitat is another Pandora’s box for novel and reemerging diseases. For example, scientists believe the worst outbreak of Ebola in history began with a 2-year-old boy interacting with a bat in a hollow tree in Meliandou, Guinea, a village surrounding by a combination of oil palm plantations and forest. Researchers have identified oil palm plantations as favorite roosting sites for fruit bats that have lost their forest.

Exotic animal trader holding lizard in front, civet on shoulder, and unknown rodents on his right in Chatuchak (JJ) animal market in Thailand in June 2020. Photo courtesy of Freeland.

It’s these kinds of places, on the frontier of deforestation, that may be potential hotspots for Ebola, a new coronavirus, or some other unknown, potentially devastating disease.

“Conservation is not seen as a necessary component of national or international security. It’s still seen as a luxury topic that we get to if there’s time remaining to discuss animals or nature. That’s a big mistake,” Galster says. “Conservationists are Earth’s doctors.”

Tropical forests continue to fall worldwide at staggering rates, with deforestation rising in recent years in the Amazon and the Congo region, despite ongoing outcries over climate change, mass extinction, and now pandemics.

“Given the role that intact ecosystems play in containing diseases and preventing their spread into human populations, ‘disease prevention’ should be considered as a new ecosystem service alongside pollination, flood mitigation and carbon storage,” McCann says.

‘Never been more obvious’

The forces against action to combat the wildlife trade, both illegal and legal, as well as nature destruction, are massive, but EndPandemics says we cannot ignore this crisis any longer.

“What makes EndPandemics different is the focus on campaigning for and achieving policy change, while supporting alliance members operating on the front line of conservation,” Galster says.

Bird trader in Bangkok Chatuchak market, wearing COVID mask, while donning several species of birds. Wild, captive bred birds from around the world and Thailand are kept together in cramped cages in this market, and are seen mixing with city pigeons, vultures, wild turkeys, and situated next to pigs, goats, dogs and cats. Circa June 2020. Image courtesy of Freeland.

McCann adds that because of its multiple networks, EndPandemics has “great lobbying power” within governments.

“The key to winning over policymakers [is] to make the economic case for protecting and rebuilding nature,” McCann says, adding “a green economy can be far bigger than the damaging economy we currently have.”

As an example, McCann points not to the tropics, but Europe. Noting that the EU subsidizes land clearing for famers to the tune of around $65 billion a year, McCann says “if these subsidies were used to incentivize farmers to protect and rebuild nature on their land, the positive impact on the planet would be immediate and enormous.”

He adds, “the money is there, it is just being spent badly.”  

One ongoing challenge is continuing to remind people what caused the pandemic in the first place, especially given the amount of misinformation and outright lies being spread.

Galster calls conspiracy theories about the origin of COVID-19 — such as that the disease was man-made in a lab — “dangerous diversions.” (Unfortunately, it should be repeated that the very definition of a conspiracy theory is one that lacks all evidence.)

If society forgets, governments will neither make changes nor stick to them. Galster points to the SARS epidemic, also caused by a zoonotic coronavirus, as an example of how the wildlife trade could easily come roaring back to China.

“The Chinese government first shut down wildlife markets [after SARS], but then after claiming to have regulated them better, they opened them back up,” he says. “That clearly did not work.”

To have a chance at stopping the next pandemic, experts say long-term and large-scale change will be required.

A slow loris for sale at Bangkok Chatuchak market, circa 2012. One no longer sees these animals for sell at Chatuchak due to it being illegal, but can now be found for sale by people on the streets of various tourist areas. Photo courtesy of Freeland.

“Nature has to be put at the heart of our economic, social and political planning,” McCann says. “We have to stop thinking of ‘unimproved’ landscapes in terms of opportunity costs, and factor in the enormous benefits — both tangible and intangible — of setting aside a significant portion of our planet for nature and natural processes.”

It’s a tall order, perhaps, but one that would be well worth it.

“The negative impact from COVID-19 was worse than any terrorist act or natural disaster in the last 100 years,” Galster says. And all because we couldn’t leave that bat, and millions more animals, alone and amid intact habitat.

“The links between conservation and public health, wealth and well-being have never been more obvious,” McCann says.

Indeed. The question is: What will we do about it?

A captured elephant poacher looks at the trunk of the elephant he killed in Chizarira National Park, Zimbabwe. Photo courtesy of: Mark Hiley / National Park Rescue.
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