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Demand for 'exotic foods' driving precipitous global loss of endangered species. - NSTP file pic, for illustration purposes only

WE welcome China’s recent decision to temporarily ban the trade in wildlife, one of several measures being taken

to control the spread of the novel coronavirus. A permanent ban, however, would help to both protect human health and end the appalling illegal wildlife trade.

China’s demand for wildlife products, used in bogus traditional “medicines” or as exotic foods, is driving a precipitous global loss of endangered species.

It also routinely endangers humanity’s health in the process. More than 70 per cent of emerging infections

in humans are estimated to have come from animals, particularly wild animals.

World Health Organisation (WHO) experts say there’s a high likelihood the novel coronavirus came from bats.

Malaysia gained a notoriety of sorts in 1998 when the Nipah virus swept across a section of the country and Singapore and killed more than 100 people. Although it has caused few known outbreaks in Asia, it infects a wide range of animals and causes severe disease and death in people, making it a public health concern.

Pigs were found to be the virus hosts, but they were believed to have caught it from fruit bats.

According to Distinguished Professor Datuk Looi Lai Meng of Universiti Malaya, the initial transmission of the virus from bats to pigs was through a contamination of pig swill by fruit bat excretions. The bats had migrated to cultivated orchards and pig farms due to the fruiting failure of forest trees during the El Nino-related drought, as well as man-made fires in Indonesia, in 1997-1998.

As Looi stressed: “Environmental management (such as deforestation and haze) has farreaching effects, including encroachment of wildlife into human habitats and the introduction of zoonotic infections into domestic animals and humans.”

In a recent interview, Dr Ben Embarek of the WHO said “we are coming into contact with species of wildlife and their habitats that we were not with before... Therefore, we have a number of new diseases linked to new contacts between humans and previously unknown viruses, bacteria and parasites”.

A recent analysis of nearly 32,000 land-based vertebrate species showed around 20 per cent were bought and sold on the global wildlife market — legally or illegally. The wildlife products industry, a large component of China’s economy, has been blamed for driving several species to the brink of extinction.

China’s approach to managing the Wuhan crisis is nothing short of exemplary and deserves the highest marks, e.g. total lockdown on affected cities and provinces, and building a 1,000-bed hospital within 10 days.

Hopefully, the crisis will have passed by October, when the Chinese city of Kunming is scheduled to host the 15th meeting of the Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD COP15).

Sadly, an important negotiating meeting, scheduled in Kunming this month, had to be relocated to the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organisation facilities in Rome — due ironically to the novel coronavirus sourced toaChinese market selling exotic wildlife as food.

On the other hand, China has demonstrated its concern for biodiversity in concrete ways before.

Experts credit China’s ban on the import of ivory, after years of international pressure, as having helped ease the threat of elephant extinction.

Today, even China’s state-controlled media outlets have denounced the country’s uncontrolled wildlife market.

Let’s hope the authorities act as they did on ivory and make the ban on wildlife trade permanent. And such a ban must not just apply in China but in Malaysia and worldwide, too.

The writer is the founding chair of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and former chair of the International Advisory Board of the UN University-International Institute on Global Health based in Kuala Lumpur

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