Origin of Pandemics: Not That Simple

Wild game is often safer than the antibiotics-laden beef from your Kansas stockyard

With the apparent explosion of the Covid-19 coronavirus out of the Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market and other area markets in Wuhan in December into 209 countries and territories, causing 1.34 million infections and nearly 75,000 deaths so far, the spotlight has fallen on wildlife markets as the culprit.

As Asia Sentinel reported on April 6, research sponsored by The World Wildlife Fund found that an overwhelming majority of Asian respondents support shutting such unregulated markets in the belief that doing so would stop similar pandemics. 

But a combination of western cultural prejudices parading as science, unproven suggestions of Covid-19’s origin and a genuine need and concern to protect endangered species has led to an outpouring of attacks on the so-called “wildlife trade,” usually without drawing any distinctions between what are different issues:

  • The avian flu virus that became a major concern in the middle of the last decade came from domestic chickens, not wild birds. Other zoonotics – diseases that can spread from animals to humans – in Asia have resulted from domestic animals, not wild ones.

  • The hunting of non-threatened species for eating or sport. This includes birds such as pheasants and pigeons, animals such as deer, kangaroo, field rats, hares, squirrels and foxes, insects such as locusts and scorpions, and others such as frogs and snakes.

  • The commercial rearing of species which are arbitrarily deemed “wild” as distinct from long-domesticated creatures such as pigs, cattle hens, sheep and (in some regions horses, dogs, camels, etc.) The lists of these include peacocks, ostriches, bison and boars.

  • The hunting of threatened species for so-called medicinal use, decoration, etc. This includes elephants, rhinos, tigers, pangolins, rare tropical fish, etc.

Clearly, the last of these issues needs to be addressed more seriously, most notably by China from where most demand for these products now originates, but also Hong Kong, which has long dragged its feet on stamping out its role as trade intermediary.

The second list may in some countries need to be regulated to prevent populations being decimated – as has long applied to shooting of birds such as grouse and ducks in most developed countries. But there is nothing fundamentally different between these and the so-called domesticated species. For example, ostrich farming has existed in South Africa for generations and is now found in other countries, China included.

Hunting animals of all kinds for sustenance is as old as the human race. Indeed, skeletal evidence suggests that pre-agricultural hunter-gatherers were better fed, if fewer in number, than those who came to rely on cereals and root crops. Chinese and Dutch writers on 17th Taiwan noted the strength and health of the natives who were big eaters of the deer they hunted and whose skins were their main trade item. To the horror of the foreigners, Chinese included, they ate every other part.

Likewise today western-trained scientists may view with horror what have long been traditional and healthy eating habits, like the rice field rats of Vietnam, Bangladesh and elsewhere.

Of course, we know that viruses can be transmitted from other animals to humans, but the pathways are uncertain. Thus the original source of the 2003 SARS was in bats which somehow was transferred via other animals to humans. But this is not proven. Bird flu came from domesticated chickens. Covid-19 is tentatively attributed to transfer via pangolins and civet cats. In these cases, wild animal markets are accused on limited evidence as the place of transmission as though animal-human transmission cannot occur in many other ways.

In Africa, what is known pejoratively as “bush meat” but is actually just traditional hunting of wild animals is blamed for diseases which as Ebola, with its 50 percent fatality rate. The culprit here is said to be a small fruit bat. But these had been eaten for years without any problem. Indeed, larger fruit bats are eaten in many countries – I have eaten fruit bat stew in Seychelles.

Attacking “wildlife” eating is also hypocritical. As Chinese people mostly understand, a fish or chicken from a wet market is fresher and tastier than the factory-farmed and frozen, plastic-wrapped one from the supermarket. The decline of wet markets has often been pushed by governments swayed by the influence of property developers and supermarket owners rather than public health concerns.

Shoppers everywhere pay a premium for “wild caught” fish over farmed fish, yet “wild,” applied to other creatures, is frowned upon. For sure wet markets need to be kept clean but why is wild caught meat more dangerous than the farmed animals stuffed with hormones to make them grow unnaturally fast, and antibiotics whose over-use now threatens the efficacy of these drugs on humans? Nor do these drugs provide protection against new or mutated viruses.

As for ethics, there are none in the world of battery hens and pigs. The wild-caught animals at least had had free lives in their natural surroundings. Battery hens, pigs, etc. live and die in an often-tortured captivity. The raising of calves for veal in tiny crates in harsh deprivation to keep them from consuming anything but milk resulted in a huge outcry in the 1990s.