“Zoonosis”. What does that mean? Turning a wild animal captive and putting it in a zoo? Well, it has something got to do with animals, but not the zoo.
“A zoonosis is any disease or infection that is naturally transmissible from vertebrate animals to humans.” (WHO, 2017). With the incidence of COVID-19 and thanks to the prevalence of social media and the Internet, more people are aware of what zoonotic diseases are. In fact, COVID-19 is not the first zoonotic disease reported. To date, it is estimated that 6 out of 10 infectious diseases in humans have animal origins (NCEZID, 2017), and that includes Dengue, Ebola, SARS, and some influenzas (WHO, 2017).
The most likely origin of SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing COVID-19, is bats, which was transmitted to pangolins and then to humans (Campbell & Park, 2020). The question now is: how did it get transmitted to humans?
Prolonged contact and exposure to an infected animal increase the chance of a virus spreading to humans. These viruses can also be food-borne, water-borne, or vector-borne (WHO, 2017). In the case of COVID-19, current hypotheses point towards the consumption of exotic animals, including pangolins, (Campbell & Park, 2020) which might have allowed a virus of bat origin which are present in pangolins to be transmitted to humans. The suspected origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus placed an even greater focus on wildlife trade and consumption, a phenomenon prevalent in Asia and specifically, in this case, China.
In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, China banned all wildlife trade and consumption. However, there were several loopholes. Medicinal use of wildlife is not subjected to the new law, and most traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) still involves the use of wildlife products, such as pangolin scales (Wang, 2020). TCM was also further supported in China, and any criticism against TCM and the associated wildlife use was made illegal (Campbell & Park, 2020). This means that wildlife trade and consumption are not totally banned. Apart from wildlife trade and consumption increasing the rate of zoonosis, what are the other impacts of wildlife trade and consumption?
Wildlife trade has been shown to lead to declines in animal populations, especially those already endangered. Hunting and consumption of these species are widespread and largely unregulated (the act of wildlife trade is considered illegal, but it has not been easy to catch and stop such illegal acts of wildlife hunting). By continuing the hunt for already endangered species, their existence is at stake, and this poses a threat to our biodiversity. In Myanmar, for example, a majority of endangered species has been reported to be declining in abundance (McEvoy et al, 2019). This includes pangolins, which are still hunted for TCM purposes, among other reasons.
It is not just about the extinction of one species that is at stake here. Populations in a habitat interact closely together, forming an ecosystem. When one species goes extinct, it is like breaking a single link in a chain, everything else will be affected. When that happens, other species will be affected, and it is hard to say what will happen in the long-term, apart from the fact that we can expect the loss of a few more species.
Wildlife consumption isn’t just risky to human health. The wildlife trade that comes along with it poses an ecological risk to our biodiversity. While wildlife trade is already made illegal, the reason it still goes on is because there is a demand for it. Think back to how fragile the ecosystem is – breaking one link somewhere along the chain will affect everything else. Thus if enforcement and regulation on wildlife trade are not as effective, what we can do to prevent any more wildlife trade is to stop the consumption of wildlife.
It’s just like sharks’ fin soup. As more people see the importance their choices and actions have on fuelling the demand for sharks’ fin, they gradually abstain from eating sharks’ fin soup. Greater awareness also led to restaurants removing the dish from their menus. Slowly, but surely, there will be no more reason to hunt for sharks’ fins anymore.
The same thing can happen for such exotic wildlife, if and only if we work towards that goal collectively.
Written by: Ernest
WHO. (2017, July 19). Zoonoses. Retrieved August 28, 2020, from https://www.who.int/topics/zoonoses/en/
NCEZID. (2017, July 14). Zoonotic Diseases. Retrieved August 28, 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/onehealth/basics/zoonotic-diseases.html
WHO. (2017, October 13). Diseases. Retrieved August 28, 2020, from https://www.who.int/zoonoses/diseases/en/
Campbell, C., & Park, A. (2020, July 23). Where Did Coronavirus Originate? Inside the Hunt to Find Out. Time. Retrieved August 28, 2020, from https://time.com/5870481/coronavirus-origins/
Wang, H., Shao, J., Luo, X., Chuai, Z., Xu, S., Geng, M., & Gao, Z. (2020). Wildlife consumption ban is insufficient. Science, 367(6485), 1435-1435. doi:10.1126/science.abb6463
McEvoy, J. et al (2019). Two sides of the same coin – Wildmeat consumption and illegal wildlife trade at the crossroads of Asia. Biological Conservation, 238, 108197. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2019.108197