Wildlife trafficking blamed for deadly virus

Target: At least 100,000 pangolins a year are captured in the forests of Asia and Africa. © Alamy

Is the coronavirus, Covid-19, nature’s revenge? A growing body of experts believes that illegal trading of rare animals led directly to the epidemic that has spread fear around the world.

Walking through a Chinese animal market is a gruesome experience. Creatures of every shape and size are crammed into cages so small that they can barely move. Some are exotic, like peacocks and porcupines; others are familiar to us as pets, such as dogs and rabbits.

But few are destined for loving homes. The vast majority will be killed and eaten, or dismembered for use in traditional medicine.

These so-called “wet markets” are not just cruel– they are also incredibly unhygienic. Animals are left to lie in each other’s droppings; butchered meat hangs in the open air. It is easy for diseases to take root here and spread to the human population.

In the Wuhan market where the coronavirus Covid-19 is thought to have started, so many types of animals were traded that tracing its exact cause is a huge challenge.

A close match for the virus, however, has been found in pangolins – small tree-dwelling creatures whose meat is considered a delicacy in Asia, and whose scales are used in Chinese medicine. They are thought to be the most trafficked animals in the world, and all eight species are close to extinction.

Another disease, Sars, which killed 774 people in 2002-2003, is believed to have originated in Chinese bats and then spread to humans via the trade in wild civet cats.

China, though, is not the only place with markets like the one in Wuhan. They are common in neighbouring countries, such as Vietnam and Laos, and in parts of Africa. A deadly outbreak of Ebola was caused by people eating the meat of virus-carrying gorillas.

As ex-foreign secretary William Hague writes in the Daily Telegraph: “No country can assume itself blameless in the illegal wildlife trade, given the complex networks of criminals involved.” In recent years, there has been a surge in the trade, which is thought to be worth as much as $20 billion (£15.4 bn) and affects over 7,000 species of animals and plants.

China has now banned wildlife markets – but only temporarily. Police there say that those who buy and sell wild animals are adept at finding loopholes in the law and worry that, if a total ban is introduced, the trade will carry on out of sight and only cause more problems.

Is the coronavirus Covid-19 nature’s revenge?

Jungle warfare

Some say that, in many ways, it is. If we treated wild animals with more respect – instead of trading them for profit, keeping them in appalling conditions, and eating them – we would not now be faced with this terrible epidemic. Diseases are a natural solution to overpopulation, and now that humans are draining so many of the planet’s resources, Covid-19 may help keep them in check.

Others argue that it is natural for us to eat meat in the same way that our cavemen ancestors did in their struggle for survival. To pick and choose which species should be on the menu is a modern luxury. A wild salmon is a healthier source of food than a farmed one, and has a much better life. And many of the animals we are accused of mistreating would eat us if they had the chance.

You Decide

  1. Would you eat a wild animal?
  2. Is farming animals more morally acceptable than capturing wild ones?

Activities

  1. Draw a picture of an endangered animal in the wild.
  2. Imagine you are an animal that has escaped from a market back into the wild. Write a one-page story about your experience.

Some People Say...

“Man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.”

Rachel Carson (1907-1964), American scientist and author

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Some of the most deadly diseases in history have been passed to humans by animals. The Black Death (the bubonic plague) was carried by rats and is estimated to have killed between 20-50% of Europe’s population in the 14th Century. Both Sars and Ebola can be traced to the wildlife trade. The unhygienic conditions in markets, such as Wuhan’s, make them prime breeding grounds for diseases that can jump from one species to another.
What do we not know?
Whether the pangolin-carried virus, which is a 99% match with Covid-19, was definitely the cause of the present epidemic. Or whether the virus would have reached humans even if the Chinese government had introduced a permanent ban on wildlife markets after the Sars outbreak. We also don’t know if the disease evolved as a way of defending other species from humans.

Word Watch

Dismembered
Cut into pieces.
Wuhan
A city in eastern China, with a population of 11 million.
Covid-19
The official name for this coronavirus, announced only yesterday by the World Health Organisation. Expect to see a lot more of it in print in the future.
Trafficked
To buy and sell something illegally.
Sars
Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, a disease which makes it hard to breathe.
Civet cats
Animals found in Asia and Africa, whose glands produce a strong-smelling substance used in traditional perfume-making.
Vietnam
A country in Southeast Asia. It was divided into two in 1954, but reunified in 1976 after the Communist-ruled North defeated the US-backed South in a long and bloody civil war.
Laos
Vietnam’s much smaller neighbour, which was drawn into the North-South conflict and suffered its own devastating civil war, in which the Communists were also victorious. It has a mainly Buddhist population.
Ebola
A highly infectious disease causing internal and external bleeding, first recorded in 1976. A vaccine against it has recently been developed.

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