• T-CPI

Part 3: How wildlife trade exacerbates pandemics

Updated: Oct 9, 2020

This is part three of a four-part series focusing on the links between COVID-19 and conservation through the lens of forests; oceans; wildlife trade and climate change.

Author: T-CPI community member Julie Luanco and T-CPI CEO and Co-founder, Harry Wright

Pangolin, The Conservation Project International
Pangolins are one of the most illegally traded animals in the world.

COVID-19, the infectious disease caused by the most recently discovered coronavirus, is believed to have emerged from the vast illegal wildlife trade and the excessive intrusion of humans into nature (Weston, 2020). This new virus and disease were unknown before the outbreak began in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. COVID-19 is now a pandemic affecting many countries globally. These viruses usually emerge in wet markets of South Asia and bushmeat markets of Africa. Wet markets are traditional markets selling live animals (farmed and wild) as well as fresh fruit, vegetables and fish which are often unhygienic. Low levels of environmental biosecurity and high levels of human-animal interaction are key risk factors for the emergence of zoonotic diseases (Daszak et al., 2020).

Zoonotic diseases are infectious diseases caused by a variety of pathogenic agents (including bacteria, parasites, fungi, viruses and prions) that are naturally transmitted from vertebrate mammals to humans and vice versa. These zoonotic diseases cause about a billion cases of human illnesses and millions of deaths every year (Can et al. 2019). They also affect national health budgets of governments worldwide and the wider economy as the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us.

A wet market in Wuhan is believed to be the source of COVID-19. That market contained foxes, rats, squirrels, wolf pups and salamanders. In these markets wild animals are in contact with farmed animals and humans. Separating wild animals from farmed animals could significantly lower the risk of disease transmission. Domesticated animals such as cattle, sheep, dogs and goats shared the highest number of viruses with humans. Wild animals that have adapted well to human dominated environments also share more viruses with people. Two to four new viruses are created every year as a result of human infringement on the natural world. Rodents, bats, and primates which often live close to people, close to houses and farms, are hosts for nearly 75% of all viruses. Bats alone are linked to diseases like SARS, Nipah Marburg and Ebola (Vidal, 2020).

Bats are hosts of various viruses and are vulnerable to the wildlife trade

On a global scale, 11 million individual live wild animals representing 1316 different species were exported from 189 countries between 2012 and 2016 (Can et al., 2019). Reptiles were among the most traded taxonomic group in terms of number of animals exported and imported. Among mammals, the most traded were primates (the genus Macaca formed most of the global trade). Among amphibians, frogs were most traded. Among birds, parrots were most traded. Among reptiles, turtles and tortoises were the most traded. China is the largest exporter for mammals and the USA is the largest importer for mammals and amphibians.

A juvenile macaque monkey - demand for the illegal exotic pet trade threatens these primates

Even though the link between the legal trade in wildlife and pandemics has been demonstrated, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Secretariat said zoonotic diseases were outside its mandate and couldn’t comment on the possible link of people eating wild animals and COVID-19. CITES Secretariat did issue a Notification to Parties concerning China’s urgent measures regarding wildlife trade regulation on 5 March 2020 in which it informs its Member States that on 24 February 2020, the China’s Standing Committee of the National People's Congress adopted a Decision to eliminate the consumption for food of wild animals to safeguard people's lives and health. On 20 May 2020, the city of Wuhan banned eating wild animals (Boyle, 2020).

These measures might seem like good news for animals and humans, but some scientists say a ban needs to be global for it to be effective (Can et al., 2019). Enforcing international bans will be difficult and these bans do not include captive-bred animals which form a large part of the legal trade in wildlife. These bans have also been criticised as they could exacerbate poverty and inequality as a lot of people in Asia, Africa and Latin America depend on this trade for their livelihoods (Weston, 2020). Bushmeat is also an important source of animal protein in certain parts of Africa where people live in the forest and remote areas.

Other scientists suggest research and investment in three areas: 1) surveillance among wildlife to identify the high-risk pathogens they carry; 2) surveillance among people who have contact with wildlife to identify early spillover events; 3) improvement of market biosecurity regarding the wildlife trade (Daszak et al., 2020).

If we do not take the above measures there is a high-risk of future diseases originating from Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America. These threats face all countries as we travel rapidly and freely through our global networks of travel and trade.

A shift in human behaviour is another way to combat illegal wildlife trade and decrease the amount of zoonotic diseases. Consumers have changed their behaviour when information on health threats posed by exotic pets had been provided (Can et al., 2019). Demand for legal wildlife trade goes with demand for illegal wildlife trade so reducing the demand for legal trade by affecting consumer habits in Western countries will also decrease the demand for the illegal trade. Offering alternative jobs and careers to people in Africa, Asia and Latin America who depend on wildlife trade could also help shift human behaviour.

If we think of humans as consumers, we are looking at human behaviour from an economical perspective but if we look at it from a philosophical perspective, we could change human behaviour by teaching animal sentience in school.

Through education we could change human behaviour from a young age and adults would then see animals as beings who have feelings and who do not want to die. This issue needs to be addressed in a more holistic way if we want to tackle it on a global scale.



Boyle, L. (2020) Stop the Wildlife Trade: Wuhan officially bans eating wild animals. The Independent. Available from: [Accessed 31/05/2020]

Can, O. E, D’Cruze, N. and Macdonald, D. W. (2019), Dealing in deadly pathogens: Taking stock of the legal trade in live wildlife and potential risks to human health. Global Ecology and Conservation, 17, January 2019, e00515. Available from: [Accessed 31/05/2020]

CITES. (2020) CITES Secretariat’s statement in relation to COVID-19. Available from: [Accessed 31/05/2020]

CITES. (2020) Notification to Parties No. 2020/018 concerning China’s urgent measures regarding wildlife trade regulation. Available from: [Accessed 31/05/2020]

Daszak, P., Olival, K. J. and Li, H. (2020), A strategy to prevent future epidemics similar to the 2019-nCoV outbreak. Biosafety and Health, Volume 2, Issue 1, March 2020, 6-8. Available from: [Accessed 31/05/2020]

Vidal, J. (2020) Human impact on wildlife to blame for spread of viruses, says study. The Guardian. Available from: [Accessed 31/05/2020]

Weston, P. (2020) ‘We did it to ourselves’: scientist says intrusion into nature led to pandemic. The Guardian. Available from: [Accessed 31/05/2020]

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