Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, attitudes towards illegal wildlife trade (IWT) have been cast in a new light. The zoonotic origins of the novel coronavirus in Chinese wildlife trade and wet markets have led leaders and advocacy groups to reemphasize the need to tackle IWT in China. This is to not only protect the earth’s rapidly decreasing biodiversity, but also to prevent another global virus outbreak (Felbab-Brown, 2021). Such calls came on the back of images of Chinese wet markets flooding Western media, and has led to worldwide condemnations of China’s inhumane treatment of animals, and the role thereof in the emergence of the pandemic. However, is China really the only actor holding responsibility for its treatment of wildlife and the emergence of the coronavirus? To add a different perspective to this discussion, this article will take a closer look at the global wildlife industry and the important but questionable role Europe plays in it today (Daea, 2020; Izquierdo, 2020; Nijman, 2010; Stein, 2018). But first, let us connect the dots between biodiversity, IWT and the emergence of new diseases.
> Disclaimer: please note that the origin of the coronavirus has not been decisively established yet. While the zoonotic origin theory remains the more widely accepted explanation for the emergence of the novel coronavirus, the so-called lab-leak theory has been given increasing credence in recent months. For the purposes of this article, the author has taken the position that the zoonotic theory is the more likely and correct explanation. Opinions are the author's own. <
1. Biodiversity, EIDs and the Global Wildlife Industry
Measured from 1975 – the year in which the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) entered into force – to 2014, the global wildlife trade has risen in volume from ~25 million to over 100 million whole organisms traded annually (Harfoot et al., 2018). This is a quadrupling of the global IWT trade by volume in under four decades. This is despite IWT having been identified as one of the most prolific anthropogenic drivers of biodiversity loss around the world (Scheffers et al., 2019). Extinction rates for many classifications of (illegally traded) fauna having now risen above those recorded for the last million years (Barnosky et al., 2011), indicating the urgency of the issue at hand. At the same time, Emerging Infectious Disease (EID) research from as early as 2005 & 2008 suggests that nearly two thirds of EIDs have zoonotic origins, of which around 70% trace back their origins to wildlife (Jones et al., 2008; Woolhouse & Gowtage-Sequeria, 2005). Recent research by Tompkins et al. (2015) corroborates these claims. Data and research spread out over more than three decades furthermore shows that the number of new EIDs has been growing rapidly over the last decades (Jones et al., 2008; Morse, 1995; Smith et al., 2014). Though the substantiated correlation between IWT and EIDs does not irrefutably equate to a causation, growing evidence suggests that IWT is a major element contributing to the emergence and transmission of EID (Halbwax, 2020); the novel coronavirus is a manifest example of that. These interconnections are why limiting IWT is no longer just a matter for environmentalists or conservationists, but for everyone concerned with their own health and that of others.
2. Linchpin of the Trade: The Risks of Europe’s Role in Global Wildlife Trafficking
The European Union has long been an advocate for the protection of biodiversity, the restriction of IWT and the advancement of global public health services, but its actions have often fallen short of its words (see for example Abnett, 2020; Van der Zee, 2020 and Weatherley-Singh, 2018). Despite the EU’s many regulations on IWT, it has been the pivotal transit point for most of the world’s wildlife trade for decades, and remains so (Banos Ruiz, 2017). It is also the largest importer of wildlife from East/Southeast Asia alongside Japan (Nijman, 2010). In 2019 alone, European member states reported 6441 seizures of illegal wildlife at its internal and external borders (TRAFFIC, 2021). However, the real amount is likely to be much higher, as conservative estimates believe this number only equates to 10-15% of the actual amount of wildlife that is illegally trafficked to and through Europe (Banos Ruiz, 2017). While not all of these seizures necessarily concern organisms posing a public health risk, such as seizures of medicinal products or elephant ivory, four out of the seven main commodity types seized by European do. Most notable of these are seizures of live reptiles and birds (TRAFFIC, 2021).
Figure 1: Global IWT Trade Routes to and from the European Union. Source: “Europe, a silent hub of illegal wildlife trade.” Deutsche Welle (2017), https://www.dw.com/en/europe-a-silent-hub-of-illegal-wildlife-trade/a-37183459 With most of the seized wildlife coming from Asian nations, such as China, Thailand and Indonesia, or transiting to them through the EU (Banos Ruiz, 2017; TRAFFIC, 2021), the European Union has a direct hand in the persistence of illegal wildlife trade in Asia and around the world. It becomes clear then, that directly or indirectly, the European Union has at least some responsibility to bear for the risks IWT poses to public health, and the damages it causes to global biodiversity. Nowhere is the EU’s failure more evident than in the case of the Anguilla Anguilla, or European Eel. Native to Europe and critically endangered, scientific studies have shown that despite a comprehensive EU import and export ban on the eel species, it continues to be one of the EU’s top illegal wildlife exports (Stein, 2018). Europe’s failure to effectively curtail IWT to and from the EU, shows the difficulty in preventing IWT-induced biodiversity loss, and that for all its criticisms of China regarding the COVID-19 outbreak, the next global EID pandemic may very well originate in Europe’s illegal wildlife trade circuit (Halbwax, 2020).
3. Morality Confronting Legality: Europe’s Livestock Exports
So far, this article’s focus has been on IWT, but there are other industries that pose risks to global public health for very similar reasons. Europe is the world’s number one exporter of live animals; reporting the export of more than 1.6 billion chickens, pigs, sheep, goat and cattle in 2019, accounting for nearly 80% of the global trade in live farm animals (Kevany, 2021). That is compared to a total volume of just 260 million animals traded globally four and a half decades ago (Osborne & Van der Zee, 2020). This growth is not without risks.
While an estimated two thirds of zoonotic EIDS trace their origin back to wildlife, this indicates that one third of zoonotic EID cases have non-wildlife or unspecified origins (Jones et al., 2008). Possibly, these zoonotic EIDs are linked to legal, live animal trade. One such EID caused a global pandemic in 2009: the pig flu. The outbreak of the virus that caused this disease, the H1N1 influenza virus, is thought to have originated in pigs that were legally transported to and from North America and the Eurasian continent (CDC, 2009). Hence, it is not just IWT that needs to be regulated and reduced, but also the global livestock trade. As such, the mere legality of a trade is no clear indicator for the global health risks they pose.
4. Conclusion: Not Wuhan, but Warsaw
The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic has put new pressures on governments worldwide to restrict IWT in their territories. This, both to protect the world’s biodiversity, but even more so to prevent another global pandemic from emerging. China has received the brunt of this pressure, but it’s questionable whether this is entirely fair. Though the focus on China is understandable, as it is where the corona virus first emerged, other countries and regions in the world regularly engage in the same wildlife trade practices as China; not in the least the European Union.
As we have seen, the EU is a majority stakeholder in the global IWT and is the world’s top exporter of livestock. The risks these industries inevitably carry with them make the EU a high-risk region for the natural development of EID and a potential ground zero for the next pandemic of the 21st century. Yet, the EU has done worryingly little so far to enhance its IWT regulations. Moreover, where it has cracked down on IWT within its borders, it has often failed to do so effectively, simply driving the trade further underground instead. This only contributes to the problem and makes future regulation of IWT all the more complicated.
While criticisms of China are not entirely unjustified in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Europe would do well to take a moment for reflection and realize that Wuhan could very well have been Warsaw. I wonder whether Europe would have done any better that China, had it been so.
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