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The current public health crisis is forcing global leaders to reflect on what went wrong and what can be done to prevent future pandemics. Evidence suggests wildlife trade is responsible for the COVID-19 outbreak. But the question remains, what is the best path forward?

Sustainable use advocates warn of potential unintended consequences if wildlife trade is banned. The industry simply needs better regulations from their point of view. However, the notion better regulations can curb the negative effects of wildlife trade is a fallacy. Banning wildlife trade is the only realistic way to protect wildlife and our own species.

Wildlife has diminished around the globe, partly, because of legal and regulated trade. In China, bear bile farming was promoted in the 1980s as a sustainable way to exploit bears while creating a buffer to protect wild populations from poaching. But after decades of trade, China’s wild bear populations are decreasing while the number of bears caged and tortured are increasing. Research shows farmed bear bile has little effect on reducing poaching and may increase the demand for wild bear bile due to consumer preference.

South Africa’s lions are in the same situation as China’s bears. Lion farming was promoted to supply consumers of the lion bone trade with legal and regulated product. And as the number of lions bred in captivity increased, so did legal lion bone exports. But with increased lion bone export came increased poaching of wild lions for their body parts.

The successes of trade bans and failures of regulated trade in wildlife conservation are exemplified by the ivory trade. African elephant numbers plummeted in the 20th century due, largely, to poaching for the ivory trade. But the 1989 CITES global ban on ivory trade reversed the downward trend and overall African elephant numbers soon increased. It was not until the 2008 legal and regulated sale of ivory from Southern African stockpiles did poaching and illegal activity begin to skyrocket. Allowing legal ivory trade was a catastrophic decision and is proving to be extremely difficult to regulate. Research found 74.3% of the ivory sold in the EU is illegal. What hope is there of developing countries properly regulating wildlife trade if the EU cannot?

Wildlife conservation is also paying the price now due to global shutdowns aimed at reducing the spread of COVID-19. Without funding and a tourist presence, Botswana is finding it difficult to keep up with the increasing poaching activity. Beyond protecting wildlife, field research is stalled in many areas and putting many important scientific studies at risk. 

Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic is demonstrating the negative effects wildlife trade has on our own species, from public health and economic perspectives. About 60% of known and 75% of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic, transmitted from animals to humans. Most of these diseases come from domestic species, but threatened wildlife species with decreasing populations due to exploitation are also a concern. Hunting and trade promote contact between humans and wildlife, facilitating the transmission of zoonotic diseases.

Countries like South Africa are a particular concern for public health. The South African government is allowing domestication and consumption of wild species while actively promoting hunting and trading vulnerable wildlife. There is little more a country could do to aid the birth of the next pandemic.

Having killed more than 100,000 people worldwide, COVID-19 is negatively impacting the global economy. Research indicates this pandemic could drive 500,000 people into poverty and increase global poverty for the first time since 1990. Models in the United States estimate the economy could shrink by trillions of dollars. There are also unintended consequences of a failing economy that go beyond productivity and job loss, people commit suicide at higher ratesduring recessions.

Despite these negative side effects of wildlife trade, sustainable use advocates will continue to call for better regulations in place of a ban. But, as the EU’s ivory trade demonstrates, proper regulation is unrealistic due to the resources and technical expertise required. Instead of a ban where officials need only determine the species and subsequent legality of a shipment, regulations require officials to have additional knowledge of local and international laws, import and export practices, quotas, and much more. It is no wonder CITES documentation processes are notorious for corruption.

COVID-19 is now the seventh coronavirus known to infect humans and will not be the last, unless major changes are made. It is no longer acceptable to allow wildlife trade to continue in the hope it will one day be regulated properly.

Wildlife trade bans are often unfairly categorized as solely an animal rights issue. But wildlife trade bans have the potential to greatly benefit conservation and reduce the risk of public health crises and economic collapses. It is time to listen to the scientists and conservationists calling for an end to wildlife trade. The international community needs to come together and issue a clear statement that banning wildlife trade benefits all species, including our own.

Image Credit: https://cites.org/eng/new_CITES_trade_rules_come_into_effect_as_2017_starts_02012017

Jared Kukura is a freelance wildlife conservation writer based in California. He founded Wild Things Initiative to highlight the negative ramifications of the wildlife trade and hunting industries.

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