THIS is not the first time we have been told that there is a link between wildlife trade and deadly diseases.
It is an old lesson recycled for a recalcitrant world. Over and over again. Like repeaters at school, we hear the same lesson ad infinitum, but do hardly any learning.
Call it Zoonotic Diseases for Dummies.
We must know by now that the wild is the natural habitat of animals. Though we — humans and animals — are connected in a web of life on this Earth, our habitats are different. There is a reason for this. Contact is contagious. We ignore this at our peril.
And the latest peril is the 2019-nCoV virus that started in a wet market in Wuhan, China. It won’t be the last. Because errant humans will continue to breach the animal-human divide. And in wet markets is where it happens a lot. Not just in China, but around the globe. In Wuhan, the disease is said to have originated from bats — the World Health Organisation (WHO) experts give it a high likelihood — and jumped to humans by way of another host sold at the market. When animals and men mix, it can be lethal. WHO says that of all the infectious diseases that afflict humans, 61 per cent originate from animals. More frighteningly, 75 per cent of all emerging infections in the last 10 years have come from animals.
We must do two things to make the mix less lethal. One, ban wildlife trade. This means handling the demand and supply sides of the market equation. One without the other won’t work. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) says wildlife trade is worth US$26 billion annually. Asia is the epicentre of such trafficking, the most notorious ground being the border areas connecting Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. WWF says the region — known as the Golden Triangle — is infamous for being a source and end destination for illegal wildlife products. The meat of exotic animals is also a status symbol in China. Sadly, the decadence has spread to other parts of the world.
The Financial Times of the United Kingdom has some spine-chilling statistics. Quoting researchers at the Universities of Sheffield and Florida, the newspaper said in October last year that out of the 31,745 land-based vertebrate species known to live on Earth, 5,579 species of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians are bought and sold on the world market, legally or illegally. The researchers also identified a further 3,196 animal species that may likely end up as pets, meat, medicines or ornaments. Herein lies one reason for the extinction of some species.
The other reason is habitat loss. This, too, we must prevent. According to WWF, 85 per cent of all species end up being threatened or endangered because of habitat loss. The irony is this: as we gain homes, the animals lose theirs. Another danger lurks here. As we get nearer the animal habitats — as researchers in Auburn University in the United States seem to postulate — we get that much closer to disease-causing microbes hosted by animals and other species. WWF says terrestrial and marine protected areas are a must. We agree. This way, they can have their home and we ours. But first, we must end wildlife trade.