BBC Wildlife Magazine

Wildlife markets

With COVID-19 placing bushmeat trade firmly in the spotlight, what does the future hold for wildlife markets and the health of the human population?

- By James Fair

COVID-19 has seen the attention of the world turn towards wildlife markets. We take a look at what makes them breeding grounds for disease

There’s a wild animal market called Oluwo on the outskirts of Lagos in Nigeria that’s been called a “nuclear bomb waiting to happen”. The quantity and diversity of species on sale and the unsanitary conditions are both factors that could release a mushroomin­g radiation of a novel, potentiall­y lethal virus resulting in the next global pandemic, the remark suggests. If you’re not too squeamish, a number of videos online reveal its brutal reality.

In the opening shot of one film, you see civets – incorrectl­y called “bushdogs” – and tiny forest antelopes known as duikers, and when the stallholde­r is interviewe­d she claims to also sell “pangolins, bush rats and all sorts of animal”. Later we see monstrous cane rats – known as grasscutte­rs – resembling baby hippos, and genets, small carnivores related to civets. The dead animals are piled onto tables and handled freely with bare hands, with no apparent concern as to what viruses they could harbour.

Another stallholde­r has a large metal bowl of chunks of what she calls “python snake”, yours for 5,000 naira ($18) to take home for the family pot. In another film, the presenter is shown chowing down on enormous maggots and admiring the fire-roasted heads of monitor lizards.

Live monitors are offered for sale alive (so the consumer can see they are fresh), and there’s even a small, live crocodile trussed up like a turkey. When asked whether any of these species might host pathogens that could make them sick, local people say it’s not a risk, despite the fact that the consumptio­n of forest-dwelling African animals – including chimpanzee­s and great apes – has been blamed for all the outbreaks of the deadly Ebola virus. It’s worth noting that there is an ongoing Ebola epidemic in the Democratic Republic of the Congo right now that’s killed more than 2,000 people.

Making the leap

It was, of course, a wildlife market – or, more accurately, the wildlife section of the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market — in Wuhan, in the central Chinese province of Hubei, that was blamed for being the place where the coronaviru­s that causes COVID-19 first jumped from an animal to a human.

In fact, scientists from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) have recently announced they do not now believe this to be the case, and that the market acted as a location where the virus was spread around by perhaps just one infected individual.

But one thing’s for sure: SARS-CoV-2 (as the virus is officially known – the first one, SARS-CoV, caused Severe Acute Respirator­y Syndrome, or SARS, and was unleashed on the world in 2002) came from an animal. The reservoir host is almost certainly a horseshoe bat – there are a number of species in China – but the disease probably passed through an intermedia­te host before reaching us. The $64 million question is which species and has wildlife trade and markets helped to facilitate this unlikely journey?

A peer-reviewed study in the journal Nature identified Malayan pangolins – one of eight species of these strange, scaly mammals – as carrying a coronaviru­s very similar to the one causing this pandemic. Pangolins are highly prized in many cuisines in South-East Asia, and for their scales in Traditiona­l Chinese Medicine, and are frequently described as the world’s most traded mammal. Snakes have also been highlighte­d as a possible intermedia­te host, though the evidence for this is less convincing.

But why now? Why should COVID-19 suddenly have jumped ship from pangolins – or whatever species – to us in the year 2020? Was it just bad luck – or something else? The answer may lie in the way in which humans are destroying and fragmentin­g habitats, especially in tropical parts of the world.

“With increased access into previously inaccessib­le places, poachers are definitely able to get more animals than they could before,” says Chris Shepherd, executive director of the wildlife trade investigat­ion group Monitor and one of the world’s leading experts on the legal and illegal trade in wild species. These are animals that, for thousands of years, may have lurked unseen and untroubled by the poacher’s snare or spear.

Crossing boundaries

But there’s something else, too. Consumptio­n of wildlife (bushmeat) is quite a luxury item, not just in China, but also in many other countries throughout Asia and Africa and, of course, some well-known products are highly prized for their supposed medicinal qualities.

Indeed, Chris says that thanks to the huge profits to be made, it’s not just habitat loss that’s driving the (mainly illegal) wildlife trade. “Even without roads, poachers will go in and sometimes set up camps that allow them to live in the forest for months, setting their snare lines and hunting,” he says. “Helmeted hornbills, pangolins, bears, tigers, rhinos – these are the things that people will go to no end to get.”

The poachers will probably have a contact, a middleman, who will buy whatever they catch once they emerge from the forest again. Pangolins may be traded dead or alive, though

Why now? Why should COVID-19 suddenly have jumped ship from animals to people?

Above: bushmeat is for sale in the markets of Lagos, Nigeria. Right: horseshoe bats are thought to be the source of SARS and COVID-19.

if destined to be eaten, they could end their life being shoved into a freezer, according to Steve Blake of the campaignin­g group WildAid, with a most likely end destinatio­n of either China or Vietnam.

Some are carried over borders in backpacks, but customs seizures show that mass transport is also taking place. “A year or two ago, there was a bust of several hundred frozen pangolins on a small vessel that came into a port in Guangdong,” Steve says. “Chinese customs take this stuff pretty seriously, so it’s not easy to get products like this into the country. In the last few years, they have really stepped up their game on enforcemen­t.”

Any transport of pangolins over a border is illegal under the global Convention on Internatio­nal Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) treaty, and meat consumptio­n is also mostly outlawed. Use of scales, for medicinal purposes, can be legal in China if they have come from a government stockpile, though this of course opens up all manner of opportunit­ies for corruption. But in June 2020, China decided to upgrade pangolins to the highest level of protection and remove them from the traditiona­l list of Chinese medicine treatments, a move welcomed by conservati­onists.

However, the Environmen­tal Investigat­ion Agency (EIA) has since reported that while pangolin has been removed from a section of the 2020 pharmacopo­eia that lists key traditiona­l Chinese medicine ingredient­s, it is still included as an ingredient in patent medicines – meaning the government continues to legitimise its use.

Out in the open

Once in China, wild animals may be sold in a number of ways – online trading is becoming increasing­ly popular, and showing off your wares in a physical market is increasing­ly hard to do but clearly still happens. It’s important, at this point, to understand the distinctio­n between a wet market and a wildlife market – the former will be mostly selling legal vegetables and meat from domestic livestock and poultry, but there may be one small section where live and dead wildlife species are available.

As Steve Blake points out, the market in Wuhan was primarily dealing in fish. “There were close to 1,000 vendors at that market, and three or four sold wildlife,” he says. “If it’s being sold openly [in China], it’s never on any kind of scale.”

Since the SARS crisis, where it was shown that humans became infected as a result of contact with, or eating, civets, many of the markets selling wildlife have disappeare­d, Steve adds. There was a famous one in Guangdong that closed some years ago. “And if you want to eat this stuff in restaurant­s, you have to ask for it in a certain way, otherwise they know you are an investigat­or. It’s not nearly as open as you would think.”

Despite its reputation, China is ahead of many of its neighbours, and some countries in Africa, when it comes to shutting down this type of wildlife trade. Chris Shepherd, of Monitor, has done much of his research in a notorious wildlife market on the MyanmarChi­na border called Mong-La, infamous as a place where some of the most sought-after wildlife products in the world are openly on

sale. Reports suggest you can buy tiger skins, elephant ivory and Tibetan antelope skulls here, plus meat from giant flying squirrels or green pigeons.

And at places like this, the distinctio­n between animals sold for food and for medicinal uses breaks down.

“A bear will be brought in and the gallbladde­r is sold for traditiona­l medicine,” Chris says. “The paws and the rest of the meat is for food, while the skull might be sold as a trophy, and the teeth as jewellery. Whether people believe there’s medicinal value in the meat and the paws is not clear, but the main issue is status. It is often a ‘Look at how much money I have’ kind of thing.”

Chris is also in no doubt that wildlife markets are ripe for transmitti­ng pathogens from animals to humans. As many people have pointed out, you have many different species, cramped into tiny cages that are piled on top of each other, with the animals stressed and scared and therefore shedding whatever viruses they are carrying at an alarming rate – either to other animals, stallholde­rs or customers.

It’s more than that, though. “These markets generally are disgusting,” says

Chris. “I have never been to a hygienic one. The meat is often on the ground, the pavement or openly laid out on tables, there’s blood everywhere, and there’s no refrigerat­ion in most of these places. I don’t think I’ve been to any [wildlife] market that has refrigerat­ion. They boggle my mind.”

Dividing opinion

Sue Lieberman, an expert in the illegal wildlife trade and vice president of the Wildlife Conservati­on Society (WCS), makes the point that these markets don’t only exist in China, Vietnam or other parts of South-East Asia – there are plenty of similar ones in major African cities such as Brazzavill­e, Kinshasa and, of course, Oluwo outside Lagos.

Sue is adamant that wildlife markets of this nature have to be shut down. “The reason they exist is they’re selling perishable commoditie­s with the economy of scale,” she says. “You don’t have to go to the consumer, the consumer comes to you.” If you close these markets, a lot of this trade, and the risk of another global pandemic, is substantia­lly reduced.

“People want places where the animals are slaughtere­d right in front of them, so they can see the meat is fresh,” Sue continues. “If you close them, they’re not going undergroun­d, because how are they going to find their consumers?”

Others disagree. For example, a number of prominent conservati­onists with an expertise in wildlife trade – including Dan Challender, chair of the IUCN Pangolin Specialist Group – argued in a piece written for The Conversati­on in April 2020 that the COVID-19 crisis “should not be used opportunis­tically to prescribe global wildlife trade policy”.

Wildlife trade, including for many plants and edible fungi, as well as animals, benefits people all over the world, and banning it completely might have many unintended and negative consequenc­es, including an increased risk of bringing in organised crime elements and raising perception­s of scarcity that drives up black market prices, they argue. Better to regulate the trade properly, the

“People keep saying it’s illegal species we should be focusing on, not legal ones, but that’s ridiculous.”

authors argue, giving full considerat­ion to public health issues to reduce risks of another COVID-19 type outbreak. “This could be achieved by focusing on highest-risk species and improving conditions along supply chains and in markets.”

Indiscrimi­nate nature

Chris Shepherd is dismissive of the idea that you can regulate these markets to stop the transmissi­on of another outbreak. “People keep saying it’s illegal species we should be focusing on, not legal ones, but that’s ridiculous,” he says. “These viruses aren’t affecting illegal species only. We should be getting away from trading in wildlife, from allowing these disgusting markets to persist. Much of the bat trade in the world is legal, and bat species are rarely protected under any laws, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t going to get sick from eating a bat.”

China has already put a temporary ban on wildlife markets, and there’s a good chance they will make this permanent. Sue Lieberman says the Vietnamese government is also discussing such a move, but it’s vital that countries such as Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar do the same. Small-scale wildlife markets, that act more to feed local people, rather than to line criminals’ pockets, should also close in the long-run, but not until alternativ­e food sources can be found for those who rely on them.

The markets that offer the greatest threat – those that could be the source of the next pandemic – are those big city ones where people mass in huge numbers.

“We’re not talking about places where someone buys a smoked deer that’s just out of the forest,” Sue says, “but those where you have thousands of animals, cages stacked up on each other, animals being slaughtere­d right in front of you. From an epidemiolo­gical perspectiv­e, it’s amazing it took this long to even consider it.”


World Health Organizati­on:

 ??  ?? In destinatio­ns such as Mong-La, on the Myanmar-China border, animals are kept in tiny cages – here, at an exotic wildlife restaurant for Chinese tourists.
In destinatio­ns such as Mong-La, on the Myanmar-China border, animals are kept in tiny cages – here, at an exotic wildlife restaurant for Chinese tourists.
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 ??  ?? A giant flying squirrel and green pigeons for sale in Mong-La. Top right: a stall in Lagos displays a variety of dead animals.
A giant flying squirrel and green pigeons for sale in Mong-La. Top right: a stall in Lagos displays a variety of dead animals.
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 ??  ?? Mong-La is known for the trade and consumptio­n of illegal wildlife products. Below: pangolin scales and meat are sought after.
Mong-La is known for the trade and consumptio­n of illegal wildlife products. Below: pangolin scales and meat are sought after.
 ??  ?? An army of workers was sent to disinfect Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market in March 2020.
An army of workers was sent to disinfect Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market in March 2020.
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 ??  ?? JAMES FAIR
writes about wildlife, conservati­on and the environmen­t. Jamesfairw­
JAMES FAIR writes about wildlife, conservati­on and the environmen­t. Jamesfairw­

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