Right now the whole world is dealing with the appalling consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, but we cannot forget about the cause. COVID-19 was caused by our broken relationship with nature.
The links between conservation and public health, wealth and wellbeing have never been more obvious. In January the World Economic Forum rated biodiversity loss as the second most impactful and third most likely risk for the next decade. At the most basic level we need healthy and functioning ecosystems to regulate our climate, provide us with abundant clean water, clean air, protein from meat and fish, pollination services from insects and other taxa, and all of the other ecosystem services that we get, for free, from a healthy environment. And we now know that we also need healthy and functioning ecosystems to mitigate the spread of zoonotic disease.
The existential threat that biodiversity loss poses to human societies is a global crisis requiring a response from all sectors that puts planetary health at the heart of our socio-economic model. But for the purpose of this article, I will focus on just one of the most critical components of the nexus between conservation and public health: the trade in wildlife.
Traditionally the trade in wildlife has been regarded as a conservation issue, the type of thing former Prime Minister David Cameron famously referred to as ‘green crap’, and therefore of little concern to politicians, to business, or to society at large. But now that hundreds of thousands of people are dying and the global economy has ground to a halt as a direct result of the failure to regulate this trade, the wildlife trade can no longer be regarded as a fringe issue, as it is obvious that it affects us all.
It is also clear that regulatory decisions taken in one part of the world can have a profound impact across the globe. This is not about scapegoating, this is not about targeting one country over others, the trade and exploitation of wildlife is a global issue and the failure to effectively regulate and police this trade has global consequences. As a result, our response must be global, with legally-binding international regulations that we can use to hold errant countries to account.
Among conservation practitioners, myself included, there is an understandable focus on the illegal wildlife trade, a $23 billion industry, funded by transnational organised criminals, that is driving many species to extinction and robs the world of around $2 trillion in ecosystem services every year. But zoonotic diseases don’t discriminate between legal and illegal trade, and we must recognise that the legal trade in wildlife has just as insidious an effect on biodiversity loss, and is just as likely to be the cause of the next pandemic.
To put the scale of the legal trade in wildlife into perspective: The US alone imports around 200 million live animals every single year, and with them a kaleidoscope of pathogens, and, with few exceptions, has no laws requiring disease surveillance for wildlife entering the country. In China, the legal trade in wildlife is valued at $74 billion and is a source of income or employment for up to 14 million people. But these figures pale into insignificance next to the cost, in human- and in cash-terms, of the COVID-19 pandemic.
With what we now know about emerging infectious diseases and the role that the wildlife trade plays in the origin and transmission of novel pathogens, it is paramount that we change our approach to the wildlife trade in two principal ways:
Firstly, we must effectively police the illegal wildlife trade. This means stopping the trade and consumption of wildlife before it happens, by better protecting wildlife at its source. This is easier said than done, but it is possible: in two years National Park Rescue has reduced poaching by 98% in a major wildlife crime hotspot in northern Zimbabwe. Policing the trade also means breaking the organised criminal networks that shift thousands of tons of contraband across the world, leaving environmental and social devastation in their wake. To do this, wildlife crime must be embedded in the UN Convention Against Transnational Organised Crime, and these laws must be enforced, with sanctions levied against nations that fail to uphold this agreement.
Secondly, we must ban the trade in high risk wildlife. This means agreeing on universal definitions of wildlife, identifying species that pose a risk to public health as well as those that are at risk of extinction, and strictly enforcing bans around their trade, no matter what the end use, be it for food, medicine or as pets. CITES, the existing regulatory framework governing the legal trade in wildlife, does not account for public health, and it is voluntary; both these things must change.
These developments will require a significant investment in law enforcement efforts, programmes of demand reduction, the provision of alternative sources of protein and income for people affected by these new laws, and the creation and implementation of exemptions for sustainable consumption by indigenous communities. This will also require unprecedented cooperation among nations, but there is a strong incentive for cooperation: we quite literally cannot afford another pandemic on the scale of this one.
COVID-19 has been a shared catastrophe, and our efforts to prevent the next pandemic must also be shared. This crisis has already seen the genesis of impressive alliances of NGOs such EndPandemics.Earth, of which National Park Rescue are a part, which are pooling the talents and resources of dozens of NGOs to protect wildlife habitat and bring the commercial trade in wildlife to an end; now we require bold leadership at government level.
With the Convention on Biological Diversity coming up later this year, and with the UK preparing to host the COP-26 climate summit in 2021, now is the time for the UK Government to use our position in the G20 to call for the changes I have outlined, and to use our global diplomatic influence to facilitate our partner nations in protecting wildlife at its source and transitioning away from the risky trade in wildlife. This will require the strategic unification of the remits of DFID, DEFRA, the Department for International Trade, the FCO and the MOD, to ensure that our foreign policy delivers strong environmental protection and the cascade of health, development and security benefits that follow on from it, enabling us to build towards a green recovery, and mitigate the risks of another pandemic.
Right now, it is hard to look beyond the human toll of the crisis, the millions of lives irreversibly damaged and the trillions of dollars wiped off the global economy. But once the immediate impact has subsided, and we are no longer scrambling to keep pace with the spread of the virus, it is vital that the international community comes together to ensure that this never happens again. And, as the WHO announced last week, the way we do that, is by protecting and preserving nature.