Calling for an End to Live Markets

With experts pointing to a live animal market in China as the suspected source of COVID-19, the illness that continues to infect millions of people worldwide, Defenders is joining the World Health Organization, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Organization for Animal Health to call for an end to illegal wildlife trade and live markets across the globe.

The animals most likely to carry the virus that jumped species, according to health professionals, are bats, snakes and pangolins. All are sold either for human consumption, unproven medicinal cures or as products for the fashion industry. 

“The root of this catastrophic outbreak that has killed hundreds of thousands of people is the exploitation and destruction of nature,” says Jamie Rappaport Clark, Defenders’ president and CEO. “People have been treating wildlife and the places they live as if they are commodities to exploit and, as this pandemic is proving, we’ve gone down a dangerous path.”

Defenders—long at the forefront of fighting illegal wildlife trade in Latin America—is now calling for a global prohibition of all live markets where caged wild and domestic animals—distressed, panicked and likely immune-compromised—are sold for human consumption. Bringing a diversity of species into close and unsanitary contact with each other and people creates a breeding ground for disease and the chance for viruses, like this never-before-seen coronavirus, to jump species and trigger epidemics.

In the U.S., Congress has introduced several bills to address open wildlife markets, including the Protecting All Wildlife Against Trafficking Act, that would require the State Department to post travel advisories about countries found to engage in wildlife trafficking. It would also extend the life of the President’s Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking, a federal group created in 2013 but scheduled to disband this year, which collaborates and shares information among federal agencies to prevent and fight illegal trade. The U.S. is one of the largest markets and transit routes for wildlife products in the world.

“Banning these markets would be a giant step forward,” says Clark. “But it’s not a bat or a pangolin we have to worry about. The biggest reason we’re suffering like this is because of our burgeoning world population, our exploitation of wildlife and our inability to slow habitat loss, climate change and loss of biodiversity. We’ll be facing additional pandemics for years to come unless we address the broader issue.” 

Climate change has weakened the ability of wildlife and ecosystems to adapt to environmental stress and diseases, and scientists have long predicted that climate change would impact human health by increasing rates of infectious disease. Climate change also leads to more food insecurity, potentially causing humans to seek out alternative food sources like bushmeat and bats, leading to disease outbreaks.

“What’s good for wildlife—clean air, clean water and healthy places to live—is ultimately good for humans,” says Clark. “All species are dependent on a healthy environment—and this pandemic serves to remind us how closely we are all connected.”

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