By Steve Galster and Kasit Piromya
Board Directors of Freeland
BANGKOK—US and Chinese leaders must put down their COVID swords and join forces to eliminate the source of the outbreak to prevent its recurrence, and make certain that the world never goes through this mess again. The source is wildlife trafficking. The solution – destroy it, as if our lives and economies depend on it.
China and the USA are the world’s number 1 and number 2 wildlife markets. The traffickers who supplied Wuhan also traffic a myriad of species to specialized markets in Bangkok, Los Angeles, Hanoi, Paris, Jakarta, New York, and beyond. The world needs leadership from our two superpowers to stamp out this global, multi-billion dollar, business to prevent more outbreaks from hitting the world even harder.
Freeland is deeply concerned that world leaders, in their COVID speeches and stimulus packages, fail to address the wildlife connection: the fact that COVID-19 jumped to people from a wild animal market, and what that means for a global containment and prevention strategy. China knows what it means. They closed all such markets and banned wildlife trade and consumption –a move that speaks volumes when considering this industry is valued in the tens of billions of dollars annually within China alone.
But this virus is not about China. The wildlife trade is global, as have been other outbreaks. In Africa, HIV and Ebola both jumped from endangered primates to people, most likely through bush-meat trade. Domesticated camels in the Middle East passed on deadly MERS. Infected Migratory ducks infected poultry they were caged with, resulting in H5N1; raccoon-like civets offered on menus gave us SARS. All of these viruses led to sickness, deaths, and economic disruption. Experts warn there will be more such outbreaks so long as wild animals are poached from their natural environment and packaged for human consumption.
Such warnings are not new. In 2007, writing about SARS, five of Hong Kong’s top experts on emerging infection diseases said wild animal markets represented a “ticking time bomb” that could explore harder next time. China’s 2003 response to SARS was to destroy 846,000 animals. With COVID-19, they closed wildlife markets and banned wildlife trade. But how many Americans know that the US is second to China in wildlife imports? How many Europeans know that the EU is third?
This month, Freeland convinced Thai officials to close a famous wildlife market in Bangkok. We know who supplied Wuhan too –this year and others– with tons of pangolins, snakes, turtles and other species. Chinese and American enforcement know too, but they do not collaborate. These criminals source and sell their animals, not only in China, but across the world, including in Thailand, the USA, Africa, Latin America, and Europe. Similar to drug lords, almost all of them continue to escape justice due to deep pockets, and to the fact that most courtrooms don’t take wildlife crime seriously.
Conservationists have long struggled to convince governments to crack down on the multi-billion dollar trade in wildlife that is driving the fastest rate of species loss in history. Like doctors and nurses on the frontline, we have been blowing the whistle for help for decades, pointing to a crisis that we call “ecocide”. We have become accustomed to hearing that “wild animals need to take a back seat to national security and humanitarian priorities.” But if there is any silver lining to COVID-19, it clearly demonstrates that wildlife protection is integral to international security and human welfare.
The US and China need to stop the blame game and collaborate. Both superpowers have counter-wildlife trafficking programs that, if connected and properly resourced, can dismantle the world’s wildlife trafficking syndicates that feed largely on their consumers and brought us COVID before they deliver new viral bombs to someone’s plate or home. A global wildlife protection effort would cost less than 1% of COVID-19’s destructive invoice to the world—which Bloomberg estimates at $2.7 trillion. That would cover wild habitat protection too, so it has the added benefit of mitigating climate change.
New stimulus packages are important for immediate relief, but they are band-aids that do not fix the cause. Freeland is calling on the UN, INTERPOL, NGOs, governments and corporations to join us in helping us develop a new “Marshall Plan” for wildlife to prevent outbreaks and extinction. Work is already underway on this plan, with details forthcoming. Freeland is seeking more partners.
While health experts work to flatten the viral curve and find a cure, the US, China and all of us can inoculate the world against recurrent outbreaks by mobilizing wildlife protection as a matter of public and global security.
– Dr. W. Ian Lipkin, Infectious Disease Expert, Columbia University speaks to CNN about COVID: :https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aHs9VBShzbA&t=8s
– Scientists Predicted after SARS that Wildlife Markets were “Ticking Time Bombs”: Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus as an Agent of Emerging and Reemerging Infection https://cmr.asm.org/content/20/4/660
– Coronavirus origins: genome analysis suggests two viruses may have combined