It’s Time to Shut Down Wildlife Markets and Ban International Wildlife Trade to Prevent Future Pandemics

By: Rep. McCaul, Lead Republican of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Sara Amundson, President of the Humane Society Legislative Fund 

Houston Chronicle 

April 25, 2020

As the world grapples with the staggering impacts of COVID-19, which likely first infected humans in a live wildlife market in Wuhan, China, we are reminded of the deadly consequences of the global trade in wildlife. Live wildlife markets are ripe environments for the transmission of zoonotic disease, or diseases that originate in animals, to humans. This can happen through eating parts of the animals or even through contact with any bodily fluids of the animals. This is more likely to happen at these wildlife markets because animals are kept alive and then slaughtered onsite — meaning blood and other bodily fluids can be found everywhere.

Most of the wildlife sold in these markets is legal; but these wildlife markets are also outlets for the illegal trade of endangered species like tigers, rhinos and pangolins. Spurred by continued high demand, the global illicit wildlife trade is valued at over $20 billion per year — one of the world’s most profitable black markets. As we are seeing play out before us, this parallel illegal trade represents a great threat to public health as well as conservation. Specifically, wildlife trafficking increases the risk and exposure to zoonotic disease for communities around the world. Porous borders, weak law enforcement and rampant corruption continues to facilitate high levels of poaching across Africa and illicit transit to these wildlife markets around the globe. The link is especially evident given the Chinese Communist Party’s recent endorsement of using certain traditional medicines that include wildlife products as a cure or a preventative to COVID-19.

For fiscal year 2018, the U.S. government contributed approximately $120 million to support efforts to combat wildlife trafficking and we are working to ensure the necessary resources are available now to address the nexus between wildlife and disease pandemics . The U.S. government, the Humane Society Legislative Fund and its affiliate partners, the Humane Society of the United States and Humane Society International, support efforts to end the trade, transport and consumption of wildlife, specifically mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians, and to combat wildlife trafficking through targeted interventions.

Partial or temporary bans are not enough, and it’s necessary to address both the legal and illegal wildlife trades to make a difference. The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress in China recently announced a temporary ban on wildlife trade, but they exempted the use for medicinal or scientific purposes — some of the primary drivers of this trade. Reopening these live wildlife markets would put us right back at risk of new pandemics or re-exposure of COVID-19. We saw this happen in 2002 when, post subsiding, the SARS pandemic reemerged after the Chinese Communist Party reopened live wildlife markets. These bans need to be permanent and comprehensive across the globe.

In 2016, the hard fought bipartisan END Wildlife Trafficking Act was signed into law and bolstered U.S. law enforcement authorities. The END Wildlife Trafficking Act should serve as an example of the bipartisan success we can have in taking the necessary steps to address the trade in wildlife so we can better help prevent zoonotic diseases. Unfortunately, more must be done.

That’s why we called on the World Health Organization (WHO) to recommend that governments worldwide permanently ban live wildlife markets and the use of wildlife in traditional medicine. In addition, we have called on a worldwide ban on the trade of live wildlife. Just this week, the WHO responded to our requests, calling on the closure of all wildlife markets. Now it is up to the governments in countries where these wildlife markets operate to implement these closures, and we implore them to listen to the health experts and close these markets.

Until we meaningfully crack down on the trade, transport, and consumption of wildlife, and hold those who sanction it accountable, zoonotic disease outbreaks will continue to threaten Americans and people around the world.