Eating wild animals & the coronavirus

Wild species are utilised by humans for food all around the planet. The sea is the source of nourishment for millions of people who live in coastal regions, and further away. In Africa, ‘bushmeat’ comprises the important protein required for human nutrition. In Asia, a very wide variety of wild species are consumed, many of them imported from distant lands, and increasingly from Africa as the Asian footprint grows on this continent.

The various outbreaks of the Ebola virus in Africa have been linked to the consumption of bats, and we also know that viruses have the disconcerting ability to mutate and change their genetic makeup as they make their homes in new hosts. From the biodiversity conservation side, considerable concern has been expressed about the number and variety of wild African animals that end up in Asian markets for food or traditional medicinal use. The capture and export of pangolins from Africa is a case in point.

But now the recent viral epidemic in China has really focussed attention on the link between wild animals and humans in the form of viruses that can spread from one to the other.

To date, the COVID-19 virus has caused over 3,000 deaths in China and has spread to over 50 countries. The virus was apparently first transmitted to humans at a seafood market in Wuhan, Hubei province. In addition to seafood, raw meat and live wild animals were being sold for food here. There have been rumours that COVID-19 jumped from pangolins to humans, but the intermediate host of the virus is still unclear at this stage. The Hunan market was shut down by the government on 1 January 2020, and the consumption of wild species has since attracted international attention.

On 24 February China implemented legislation to ‘thoroughly ban the illegal trading of wildlife and eliminate the consumption of wild animals to safeguard people’s lives and health.’ The new laws prohibit the eating of terrestrial wild animals, including those that are bred or reared in captivity. Hunting, trading and transporting terrestrial wild animals for the purpose of consumption is also prohibited.

While western conservationists were quick to applaud China’s reaction, hoping that it would reduce the impact on wildlife trade, it is too soon to gauge whether there will be real benefits for many of the species that were under pressure. However, there are a number of factors that make no difference to the status quo of many wild species.

For example, it remains legal to use processed pangolin scales from a certificated source, or bear bile from legal farms for medical purposes. This means that a substantial number of species are unaffected by the ban. Non-edible use of wild terrestrial animals is still regulated by existing laws, such as the Wildlife Protection Law (2018) and the Traditional Chinese Medicine Law (2016).

Dr John Ledger is a past Director of the Endangered Wildlife Trust, a consultant and academic on energy and the environment, and a columnist for the African Hunting Gazette.

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