Wildlife Trade Bans May be Detrimental for Pandemic Prevention and Conservation
18 June 2020

A ban on wildlife trade may be a misguided, potentially harmful, response to COVID-19, according to a new publication.

The devastating impact of COVID-19 has forced the world to re-examine its relationship with nature.

Understandably, people around the world have been calling for reform in our approach to global health security.

One narrative that is often brought up in this discussion is the need for a ban on wildlife trade, both in China and beyond.

While it is clear that we should look to improve our pandemic preparedness, many have also questioned whether wildlife trade bans would be the appropriate response.

A recent publication that has been widely shared online, entitled Overselling wildlife trade bans will not bolster conservation or pandemic preparedness, argues that a ban on wildlife trade is not the optimal approach, suggesting that it may even hinder efforts to prevent future outbreaks, as well as the work of conservationists.

In this article, we take a look at some of the key points from this paper, and provide some of our own thoughts on how wildlife trade bans could hinder existing efforts to conserve nature.

Are wildlife trade bans effective?

Safeguarding ourselves against future zoonotic diseases will not be as simple as introducing a wildlife trade ban. Past attempts to use bans as a regulatory measure have shown that they may have unintended consequences.

The article brings up the response to the Ebola outbreak in 2015, where policymakers decided to introduce bans on bushmeat trade.

“These bans fell short of their stated aims, as bushmeat trade was pushed into illegal channels that limited surveillance and bans undermined community trust— not just in conservationists but also in the Ebola outbreak response.”

This example shows that such bans don’t necessarily eliminate the demand for certain animal products, causing these species to continue to be traded on the black market. Trade going through these illegal channels could increase the likelihood of future pandemics, due to the limited capacities for monitoring, and poor health and safety standards.

Pushing trade into illegal channels may also cause a surge in the number of illegal killings, as there would be nothing stopping poachers from selling illegally sourced animal products. Some working in the wildlife sector, whose livelihoods would be affected by a ban, may even be pushed to collaborate with poachers as a way to earn a living.

In principle, wildlife trade bans should limit the exposure of humans to wildlife species, thereby limiting the possibility of future outbreaks of zoonotic diseases. The reality is that these situations are complex, and an appropriate response will require more thought on the part of policymakers.

Zoonotic diseases can emerge from anywhere

Our susceptibility to zoonotic diseases is actually mainly a result of the close relationship between humans and wildlife. Whether it is though farming, cohabitation, hunting or hiking, interacting with wildlife is deeply integrated into many aspects our lives. Our close proximity to nature is precisely why pandemics have the potential to emerge from anywhere, not just through wildlife trade.

One only has to look at the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS), to find that humans are at risk of contracting diseases from other pathways.

“MERS-CoV spreads to human beings through dromedary camels. Halting the wildlife trade[…] would not necessarily prevent a novel MERS-like virus from emerging as a pandemic threat.”

People are at risk of contracting MERS as camels are often kept as livestock, or for transport – this risk would still be reality even if a ban on camel trade were to be introduced.

Another example of a zoonotic disease that can easily spread due to our proximity with wildlife is Avian influenza, which can infect humans via common bird species such as gulls, ducks, and chickens. In this case, even if controls on wildlife trade were to prevent the spread of this virus through chickens, transmission to humans could still occur through gulls or ducks.

This shows that a wildlife trade ban does not look to address the full scope of our vulnerability to zoonotic diseases. It can be argued that the best approach would be to make improvements to global health security, while also taking into consideration our existing relationship with wildlife.

What should be done instead?

As has been discussed, wildlife trade bans have the potential to backfire on conservation and pandemic preparedness, and their implementation would only be one part of the story when attempting to stop future outbreaks of zoonotic diseases.

By improving the foundations of health security instead, the world will be better equipped to combat all types of new diseases, including those that are not zoonotic in origin.

In instances where we were better prepared for potential outbreaks, as was the case with the H1N1 influenza, outbreaks were managed more effectively.

The 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic originated in North American pig farms. Thankfully, influenza is a well-recognised pandemic threat. As a result, the international community has more stringent safeguards against an influenza pandemic, including governance of outbreak response, sequence sharing, and vaccine production.”

Looking at global health security holistically, areas that would be worthwhile investing in would be monitoring, containment, patient care, genome sequencing, vaccine production and distribution.

In terms of preventing the emergence of viruses that may arise in a similar fashion to COVID-19, rather than eliminating wildlife trade entirely, a more appropriate response may be to introduce stricter health and safety standards in the legal wildlife trade sector, or more stringent checks on the source of animal products.

Wider implications for conservation

While efforts should be made to safeguard ourselves against future zoonotic diseases, it should be ensured that it is not at the detriment of existing conservation efforts.

The article suggests that approaches motivated by fear, such as a ban on wildlife trade, would “handicap the real work of engendering respect for nature, weakening conservation in the long-term.”

“Respect for nature” can circle back to conservation in many ways. This could mean ensuring that wildlife harvesting practices are conducted ethically and safely – something which would be difficult to enforce should trade shift to illegal channels.

Second order effects on conservation may come as a result of the breakdown in relationship with local communities and wildlife. Should people come to fear wildlife, or if wildlife is demonised, this could result in increased poaching or illegal killings. Landscapes may even be at risk, as there would less incentive for people to protect certain species, and their related habitats, when they can no longer benefit from their utilisation.

The CIC fully supports efforts to ensure that humans maintain this respect for nature. A connection with wildlife is what leads many people to practice hunting – a continued respect for nature allows them, and future generations to practice hunting and the wider management it entails.

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