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Pangolins, pandemics and the bottom line

David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation

This is a story of how an animal unwittingly caused a pandemic and plunged the world into chaos, making the illegal wildlife trade everyone’s problem.

One of the biggest global recessions in modern history has just begun. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is gearing up to donate 1 trillion dollars from its war chest to bolster economies that collapsed as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Nearly half a million people have now been infected with the virus and the toll keeps rising. Never before has the paradigm of ‘your health is your wealth’ rung so true.

The world has gone into lockdown -from the largest corporate entities to the small independent businesses. Transport hubs, massive sporting events, and even the local pub have all come to a grinding halt as governments scramble to halt the spread of the deadly disease.

As we sit reflecting in isolation, looking for life lessons to get us through the current crisis, we are reminded that we are all equal and more connected than we previously thought.

In the pandemonium of it all however, most of us seem to have forgotten how the Covid-19 virus came about. The answer is the pangolin; a charismatic but shy scaly anteater that occurs in Africa and Asia.

Experts have concluded that the Coronavirus made the leap from bats to pangolins and then humans in a live wildlife market in Wuhan, China. Snakes, civets, pangolins, tigers and other exotic endangered animals, that ordinarily would never encounter each other in the wild, are stacked and racked in cages for human consumption. This is how diseases start and spread.

History shows that human disease outbreaks are rising and are for most parts zoonotic, meaning they originate from animals. In fact, we know that as much as “75% of all emerging infectious diseases come from wildlife,” including:

  • HIV, originating in chimpanzees
  • Strands of influenza virus have been passed on by chickens and pigs
  • Ebola is transmitted and carried by bats
  • The SARS outbreak arose in civet cats

In a TED Talk in 2015 Bill Gates said: “If anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades, it’s most likely to be a highly infectious virus rather than a war – not missiles, but microbes.” Prof Andrew Cunningham, from the Zoological Society of London also stated that “the emergence and spread of Covid-19 was not only predictable, it was predicted [in the sense that] there would be another viral emergence from wildlife that would be a public health threat”. The pandemic we are facing today should not shock us: it was in fact forecasted and was avoidable. How we act once the storm has passed in order to avoid this ever happening again will indicate our true willingness to finally tackle, with the appropriate means, the illegal wildlife trade in order to best learn from our mistakes.

The Illegal Wildlife Trade

Despite a more recent shift in global attitudes to the consumption of wildlife products and use of endangered species for human benefit, some places like the Far East still show a high demand for endangered species products, including rhino horn and pangolin scales.

Now a multi-billion-dollar industry, and hot on the tails of arms, drugs and human trafficking, the illegal wildlife trade is a criminal enterprise on steroids.

Wildlife is listed as a natural resource in China, so it is legal for citizens to breed non-domesticated animals, including pangolins for consumption. Pangolins, however, do not keep well in captivity. Firstly, their ant diet makes it hard to appropriately feed them, and secondly, their susceptibility to stress and disease, means their reproductive capacity and lifespan are significantly reduced. As a result, the illegal import of exotic and endangered wildlife, like pangolins, is rife.

On a positive note, and as a result of Covid-19 and the destruction it has wrought, China has now banned the consumption of wildlife. Sadly, major loopholes remain and this does not include the use of animal parts, like tiger bone, rhino horn and pangolin scales in traditional medicine but it’s a start. To learn more about the ban read, The Scales of Justice.

Picking Your Battles

The world now has a common cause: to defeat the illegal wildlife trade. Covid-19 does not discriminate so it does not matter if you’re Joe Jonas, Joe Bloggs, a boardroom big shot, a senior ranking government official or a wildlife charity; the illegal wildlife trade needs to stop. It is a health threat to everyone and a costly exercise for the economy. This is not something for conservationists to tackle alone any longer.

We are now living with the consequences of our disregard for nature.

The bottom line is the illegal wildlife trade is a global problem. Can we really blame the pangolins for plunging the economy into a global recession?

Image credit: Wesley Hartmann

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