Covid-19 has dominated all our lives for much of 2020, but we still have much to learn, and one of the main questions scientists are still figuring out is how the virus passed from animals to humans. The current theory is that it originated in bats, before being passed to pangolins –said to be the world’s most trafficked animal- and then on to humans. The resulting global health emergency has shone a light on illegal wildlife trafficking and animal welfare issues, with the trade in wild animals creating the perfect conditions for the pandemic that has swept the world.
The links between coronavirus and the wildlife industry have yet to be fully confirmed by scientists, but what we do know is that as an industry wildlife trafficking will be hard to stop, regardless of the potential repercussions for human health. The illegal wildlife trade has always been an extremely secretive activity. While it is difficult to accurately monitor such an underground industry, the UN estimates that between 6 and 22 billion dollars’ worth of animals and animal products are trafficked each year. This would make wildlife trafficking the fourth largest criminal enterprise in the world, after drug trafficking, counterfeiting, and human trafficking.
In some parts of the world, exotic wildlife is seen as a status symbol or luxury item, and wild animals are often used as pets. But the majority of trafficked animals are traded for their body parts, which are either eaten as a delicacy, or used as ingredients in traditional medicine.
Illegal wildlife trafficking has been linked to coronavirus through the trafficking of pangolins, scaly mammals found in Asia. It is estimated that between 2000 and 2019, around 900,000 pangolins were trafficked across Asia. Scientists now believe that pangolins may have passed Covid-19 to humans, after being infected by bats. The World Health Organization has confirmed that the disease first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan, with evidence suggesting it could have come from a local wet market, where it is reported that wild animal meat and even live wild animals were being sold. In most parts of the world, wet markets sell fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, and seafood. They are called wet markets because of the ice used and water splashed on produce to keep it fresh.
In Asia, some wet markets have wildlife sections, and most of the animals are not kept or handled in sanitary conditions. Cages are often stacked, with no dividing space between cages in which different species of animals are held. Under these atrocious unnatural conditions, feces and other bodily fluids routinely leak from one cage to another, and are passed among species.
Since the coronavirus outbreak first began, China has faced a global backlash in protest against its wild animal consumption, both legal and illegal. Before the advent of coronavirus, the sale and consumption of animals including bats, porcupines and peacocks was legal in China, with the wildlife industry within the country worth around 75 billion dollars a year and employing more than 14 million people. But coronavirus has led to greater questioning of the ethics of rearing animals for food, and not just in China, with countries in the west also beginning to question the methods used for breeding animals long considered acceptable foods.
In nature, animals of different species would never find themselves in such close and prolonged proximity. It is not the natural world that is responsible for the threat we have all been facing for the past several months, but rather humanity’s increasingly dysfunctional relationship with nature.
At Tambopata Ecolodge, as we watch what has been happening across much of the globe, we have continued to work to conserve our own corner of the natural world, and we hope very soon to welcome guests once more, so that they can see and experience how humankind can live in harmony with the planet we share with all other living things.