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Can COVID-19 outbreak save Africa’s endangered wildlife?

April 30th, 2020
topic:Hunting & Poaching
by:Cyril Zenda
located in:Nigeria, China, South Africa, Mozambique, Kenya, Uganda, Botswana, Namibia
tags:Africa, China, corona, COVID-19, environment, mass extinction, Nigeria, Pangolin, rhino horn, wildlife trade

With China – the main market for most endangered African wildlife species – imposing a “thorough ban” on consumption of some of these animals, there is a glimmer of hope for pangolins, bats, civets among other animals.

For many decades, a global chorus of wildlife conservationists has been trying its best to save some wildlife species from extinction. But this effort has not been good enough, as the numbers of these endangered animal species have continued to plummet at an alarming rate.

Now salvation for some of these animal species, which are facing extinction, could be coming from the most of unlikely of sources… the source country of the deadly COVID-19. The pandemic has resulted in China – the world’s largest bazaar for all sorts of creatures – deciding to “thoroughly ban illegal trading of wildlife and eliminate the consumption of wild animals to safeguard people’s lives and health.”

While the COVID-19 outbreak, which started in the Chinese city of Wuhan, is a real disaster of global propositions to humans, it could actually be a blessing for many endangered wildlife species. Researchers tracing the source of this latest Coronavirus outbreak are linking it to anything from pangolins, bats, snakes and a whole array of wild animals that form part of celebrated Chinese dishes and traditional medicine. Other Asians countries like Vietnam, Hong Kong and Singapore also have healthy appetites for meat and other products harvested from these animals.

Gleeful anticipation

The unexpected intervention by nature, which effectively stalls the lucrative wildlife industry, has seen members of the global pro conservationist lobby rubbing their palms in gleeful anticipation.

“This public health crisis must serve as a wake-up call to end the unsustainable use of endangered animals and their parts, whether as exotic pets, for food consumption or for their perceived medicinal value,” said the World Wide Fund for Nature, which applauded the move by China. It celebrated Beijing’s latest round of drastic measures – which follow those put in place in 2018 – as being of “great significance to promote ecological civilisation and harmony between people and nature.”

“Such bans, when strongly enforced, are critical for combating wildlife crime and the risky consumption of wild animals,” added Ginette Hemley, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) senior vice president for wildlife conservation. “The COVID-19 crisis highlights the public health risk of allowing illegal and unregulated wildlife markets to flourish. We hope that China’s decision sets a strong example for other countries with unregulated live wildlife markets and illegal wildlife trade.”

The recent more severe ban by the Chinese government comes shortly after the August 2019 announcement by China’s state insurance providers that, starting in January 2020, they would stop covering medicines made from pangolin scales. 

“There is a strict balance of nature”, said the Tikki Hywood Foundation, a Zimbabwe-based wildlife conservation organisation. “This is a concept in ecology describing how natural ecosystems remain in a state of equilibrium, keeping everything in “check”. All too often man upsets this balance, like (by) poaching and illegally trafficking wild animals. The reaction, in this case – a virus, is nature’s way of screaming for humanity to STOP, but no one is listening.”

Pangolin the most trafficked

The concerns of the Tikki Hywood Foundation are not unfounded. In 2019 alone, 82 people were arrested in Zimbabwe after being caught in possession of live pangolins, and more than one tonne of pangolin scales were recovered, itself evidence that tens of thousands of these creatures had been killed.

Pangolins, together with pythons, civets, hedgehogs, the African wild cats, the bat- eared foxes and others, are some of the African wildlife species that are threatened with extinction and therefore listed under Appendix 1 of the 183 member Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) forum.

Of these, the pangolin is the most-trafficked mammal, both for its meat and other products – especially scales – which are the key ingredients for more than 500 Asian traditional medicines. The Wildlife Justice Commission identified 27 countries and territories involved as sources, transits, or destinations for pangolin scale shipments. Of these, six countries in particular – China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Singapore, Nigeria, and Democratic Republic of Congo – were listed as notorious, as they accounted for 94 percent of the overall contraband.

Nigeria supplied more than half of the over 200 tonnes of pangolin scales intercepted in the Asian markets between 2016 and 2019, making it the main supplier to the trade.

Other supply sources for the Asian wildlife market include South Africa, Mozambique, Kenya, Uganda, Botswana, Namibia, among most other sub-Saharan African countries. It is to the same market that international wildlife trafficking syndicates deliver elephant and rhino products, the most well known victims of illegal trade in wildlife.

Biosecurity, economic and public health considerations

Analysts see the real possibility of COVID-19 outbreak having a far-reaching impact on this multi-billion global industry.

“In the longer term, the pandemic may provide the impetus to properly address the issue (of illegal wildlife trade),” pointed Simon Evans, a principal lecturer in Ecotourism at United Kingdom’s Anglia Ruskin University. “This is because, while the illegal wildlife trade was once criticised almost purely in terms of conservation, it is now also being considered in relation to broader themes of biosecurity, public health and economic impact.”

In the past few weeks, pangolins, bats and snakes have been linked to the outbreak of the COVID-19 disease in China. The deadly virus, which has killed hundreds of thousands across the world and sickened millions of others, is believed to have come from a crowded animal and seafood market in Wuhan, where many species were held in unsanitary conditions. Although the evidence is inconclusive, this prompted the Chinese government to take drastic action.

Undermining wildlife trade

Experts say if more actions against the wildlife trade follow, the incident could prove to be a turning point for wildlife conservation. They said publicity generated by the COVID-19 virus have a real potential of contributing to the ending wildlife trade, firstly through heightened enforcement of bans in many countries – like what China is now taking a lead in doing – and secondly through convincing people to stop buying wildlife products. If is hoped without any meaningful demand, the illegal trade will become unprofitable, and suppliers will abandon it.

“WWF welcomes China’s decision as a critical step toward eliminating threats to human health posed by the illegal wildlife trade and securing a future for species threatened by illegal trade for meat, medicinal use and luxury items,” WWF’s Hemley said.

Evans added that COVID-19 clearly represents an unparalleled opportunity to combat the wildlife trade, and ensure that animal borne diseases do not mutate and cross over to humans.

“But only time will tell whether this opportunity will be taken or put off once again until the emergence of the next – perhaps even more virulent – pandemic poses an even graver global threat,” he said. It’s toll on human life notwithstanding, some endangered wildlife species could end up being the biggest winners from the COVID-19 disaster.

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
Author
Nigeria China South Africa Mozambique Kenya Uganda Botswana Namibia
The pandemic has resulted in China deciding to “thoroughly ban illegal trading of wildlife and eliminate the consumption of wild animals to safeguard people’s lives and health.”
While the COVID-19 outbreak, which started in the Chinese city of Wuhan, is a real disaster of global propositions to humans, it could actually be a blessing for many endangered wildlife species.
Evans added that COVID-19 clearly represents an unparalleled opportunity to combat the wildlife trade.