A Watershed Moment for Preserving Lives – Theirs and Ours
Wildlife trade where exotic animals are sold for parts, food or medicine – even as pets – is multibillion dollar business. One in every five wildlife species is at risk of being ensnared in wildlife trade, driving an estimated 8,775 species to the edge of extinction.
Human consumption of wild animals has long been a public health concern, linked to the origin of outbreaks such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Ebola Virus Disease. Nonetheless, China is reopening wet markets where COVID-19 may have originated, albeit with purportedly improved regulations on hygienic conditions.
On February 24, China announced a ban on the sale and consumption of wild animals in China. But China’s Ministry of Finance announced on March 17 it would increase the tax rebate on an array of exported products, including edible snakes and turtles, primate meat, beaver and civet musk and rhino horns.
Wet markets featuring exotic species are not uncommon throughout Asia. Wildlife farms (an oxymoron) also raise animals for traditional medicines. And in an unrelated problem — as uncovered in the recent Netflix hit Tiger King — purveyors of tigers, leopards and other big cats continue to fuel the fantasies of Americans who want selfies with a baby cub. Spoiler alert: at the end of the series, it’s revealed there could be 5,000-10,000 tigers living in captivity in the United States compared with 4,000 in the wild.
Has the strange confluence of Joe Exotic and COVID-19’s potential origins from a bat in a wet market finally brought the world to a watershed moment in wildlife trade?
No Trade Without Demand
Attempts to prevent or limit wildlife trade often focus on the supply side. But trade is driven by consumer demand. It’s the demand for wild animals and plants that signals there’s money to be made both illegally and legally.
Wildlife harvested for food encompasses a broad range of practices, from illegally importing ultra-rare exotic animal meat such as African gorillas and elephants, to the sustainable and legal Australian kangaroo meat trade. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, wild meat is often the only available source of animal protein in poverty-stricken areas, where it’s unlikely to be internationally traded.
However, there is evidence that urbanization is driving increased demand in commercial trade of wild meat because of the relatively higher prices paid by urban dwellers. Increasing affluence (particularly in Southeast Asia) has increased demand for wildlife products, which have taken on luxury status. For example, in some Asian countries, consuming certain species is believed to help the eater absorb the animal’s strength and resilience. Nonetheless, consuming wild animals carries significant danger of transmitting zoonotic diseases that can occur through any contact with the animal or meat, via the hunters, middle market distributors, sellers in the market or consumers.
Many wild animals are hunted for the purported medicinal properties of their organs, bones and skin. The endangered pangolin is believed to be the most-trafficked animal in the world. Their scales are ground into various medicines to treat anything from malarial fever and deafness to “demon-possession” in women. Despite the illegality of killing them, huge quantities are still seized by customs officials while being smuggled from their native habitats in India and Myanmar. African wildlife, including crocodiles, elephants and rhinos have long been poached for use in traditional medicine, exported mostly illegally, though some hunting for trade is managed and legal.
Endangered and non-endangered wild animals are also traded and transported live to be sold as exotic pets. According to U.S. pet ownership statistics from 2017-2018, over 18 million U.S. households owned some form of exotic or specialty pet, totaling just shy of 90 million individual animals. This number includes hundreds of species of fish, wild birds, reptiles and mammals like macaws, iguanas and monkeys.
Regulating Legal Wildlife Trade
When picturing international trade in wildlife it’s easy to jump to images from the news of monkeys being smuggled in underwear or elephant poaching in Tanzania. However, a huge amount of wildlife trade occurs legally for breeding, biomedical research, exhibitions, conservation and even law enforcement and forensic work.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an international agreement ratified in 1975 to which 183 countries are now a party. It was negotiated to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. More than 37,000 species are categorized by the degree of protection they need. Trade in species threatened by extinction is permitted only in exceptional circumstances. Trade must be controlled for species where their utilization is incompatible with their survival. A third category includes species that are protected in at least one country that has asked other CITES parties for assistance in controlling the trade. All forms of trade in animals covered by the agreement must be authorized through export quota and licensing systems.
According to CITES data, over a million legal transactions involving live animals or their by-products such as fur, skins and dried herbs occur each year, and this does not include the millions of transactions involving species not on the CITES protected list. The CITES Trade Database may represent the largest data collection currently available on the sustainable use of wildlife. Each “record” in the database provides details of one permitted shipment (import, export or re-export) of live or dead animals and plants and their parts and derivatives. Below is an example of data extracted from the database on the number of “big cats” covered in the panthera genus that were traded live in a given year.
Participation in CITES aids governments in regulating and monitoring legal trade in animals, supports conservation efforts by making species easier to track, and arguably provides communities with an incentive to keep native populations healthy and thriving, for the subsistence of local communities and as a resource to cultivate for their livelihoods. For example, CITES has supported the growth of community-managed vicuña populations in Bolivia and Peru, which are shorn for valuable fiber.
However, despite the best efforts of agreements such as CITES, the legal trade in animals is still a grey area. Ethical concerns exist over whether there is any acceptable way to transport live animals, and introducing non-native species to new habitats can sometimes wreak unexpected ecological and economic havoc, even with good intentions. The United States imported over 800,000 plants and live animals covered by CITES in 2018, including wolves from Sudan, bears from Canada, and flying foxes from Indonesia.
Illegal Wildlife Trade On Par with Illegal Drugs and Weapons
Illegal international trade in wild animals is worth billions, comparable in size and scope to the illegal drug and weapons trades, making it one of the largest black markets in the world.
Civil conflict and wildlife trafficking often go hand in hand. In countries mired in conflict and suffering from weak governance, criminal organizations and militia groups are reaping huge sums of money from wildlife trafficking with terrible knock-on effects for society along with the animal population. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, armed groups sustain conflict from the money made from poaching and illegal wildlife trafficking. Youth are being torn from their families, conscripted into poaching, while the community suffers violence and economic setbacks.
A Pivotal Moment in Wildlife Trade
What more can be done to protect wildlife? One solution is to reduce consumer demand. China has increased public health and safety warnings about the consumption of wild animals and has conducted raids and arrests for those found catching or selling wild animals. The U.S. Agency for International Development created targeted campaigns using celebrities to try and reduce ivory demand. An organization called Change Wildlife Consumers is attempting to use behavioral science to influence consumer behavior.
With renewed scrutiny on wildlife trade due to its impacts on human health and the health of native species and habitats, the stage may be set for governments to impose stricter prohibitions on wildlife trade. But if demand persists, wildlife markets and similar activities may be driven underground, making it riskier but more lucrative for unscrupulous traffickers to deal in wildlife trade.
Joe Exotic landed in jail for other crimes. Meanwhile, wet markets and trade in wild animals remains both a threat to animal survival as well as to the health of humans and our economies on a global scale.
Alice Calder received her MA in Applied Economics at GMU. Originally from the UK, where she received her BA in Philosophy and Political Economy from the University of Exeter, living and working internationally sparked her interest in trade issues as well as the intersection of economics and culture.