Calls for Governments to Shut Illegal Wildlife Markets

With millions threatened, maybe this time they mean it

By: Purple Romero

An overwhelming majority of wet markets in five Asian countries say they will support government measures to close illegal or unregulated wildlife markets in the campaign to effectively prevent another pandemic like Covid-19, which originated in a wildlife market in Wuhan, China and has so far infected nearly 1.3 million people and taken the lives of almost 70,000. 

Research sponsored by The World Wildlife Fund and conducted by the international research firm GlobeScan with 5,000 respondents in markets in Hong Kong, Thailand, Japan, Myanmar and Vietnam between March 3 and 11and released on April 7 found that 93 percent of respondents said they would support the shutdown of such unregulated markets, with 79 percent saying doing so would effectively stop similar pandemics. Another 79 percent said they would be ‘worried” if no such steps to close them are taken. 

Such wildlife markets have been a colorful and bizarre fact of life for centuries in many third-world countries, now intruding on modern society with so-called “zoonotic viruses” that can be transmitted between humans and animals. They have a formidable panoply of goods on offer from tiger parts and rhino horns to live civet cats to snakes peacocks to bats to pangolins to rare mouse deer and even to house cats and other animals, validating the old saying in China that a Cantonese will eat anything with its back to the sky and its belly to the ground.”  

One of the difficulties is that there is a huge trade in illegal wildlife including exotic, endangered birds, sea turtles and pangolins, a diminutive scaly mammal that is rated the world’s most-traded illegal wildlife. Such items as tiger penises, rhino horns and bear gallbladders for centuries have been considered therapeutic although there is no scientific evidence of their efficacy. These animals are often traded and purchased in countries where the GlobeScan survey was conducted. 

China may have learned its lesson, banning the eating and trading wildlife in late February after the Wuhan outbreak. Unlike past efforts, it may end up being permanent. Sales and consumption have resumed after similar episodes led to outbreaks of Ebola in Africa, the 2012 Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and the 2003 SARS epidemic in China and Hong Kong, which killed 300 people in Hong Kong and affected over 8,000 people in other countries — and which originated not in a wildlife market but from domestic pigs sold in a wet market in Guangdong.

This time, however, 10 Chinese provinces have gone after captive breeding farms for tigers, bears and other animals. Restaurants and markets have been closed since China announced its ban, which is expected to be written into law.  

 “Local people are asking their government ministries to close these markets to avoid this pandemic from happening again,” said Wander Meijer, director at GlobeScan Asia Pacific. “If no measures are taken to close wildlife markets, the population will be worried that this will happen again.”

The first cases of Covid-19 were reported from the Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market and other area markets in Wuhan in December. The report of the joint mission of WHO and China said that “bats appear to be the reservoir of COVID-19 virus, but the intermediate host(s) has not yet been identified.”

Different studies, however, such as one published by researchers from The Joint Institute of Virology, The University of Hong Kong, the Beijing University of Chemical Technology, the Guangxi Medical University and The University of Sydney on March 6 suggest that pangolins could likely be the intermediate host. They discovered “SARS-CoV-2-related coronaviruses in Malayan pangolins (Manis javanica) seized in anti-smuggling operations in southern China.” 

The GlobeScan-WWF survey showed that closing down illegal or unregulated wildlife markets can cut down consumption of wildlife products by almost half in five countries in Asia, but there will still be buyers – most notably from Vietnam – who said they will look for alternative sources or markets for these species, including overseas.

Forty-three percent of the respondents from Vietnam said they will buy wildlife products overseas, while 36 percent of the respondents from Japan said they will buy them from a trusted supplier. 

“It wouldn’t stop consumption easily but reduce it by 41 percent, almost half,” Meijer said. 

Eight percent of those surveyed said they would still buy wildlife products in open wildlife markets. 

What makes illegal wildlife markets a particularly potent source of zoonotic diseases is the proximity of the animals with each other. 

“Species were kept together right next to each other, diseases can jump from one animal to another to humans quite easily,” Meijer explained. 

Don’t forget how it started

The survey showed that the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed most people to change their consumption habits as a way of showing their support for the closure of unregulated markets. Fifty-five percent of the respondents said they would stop eating wildlife products and bushmeat animals, while 53 percent said they would convince others not to buy or eat the same.

While a majority of the public survey – for now – said they would do their part and make the necessary changes, Meijier stressed that governments should be serious in putting a lid on the operations of unregulated wildlife markets as the pandemic has turned into a public health, economic and even security issue, affecting millions of people worldwide.

“We almost forgot how SARS started,” Meijer said. “Let’s not forget how it started now.”