Kitty Block: Coronavirus offers more proof why China needs to shut down live wild animal markets for good

January 27, 2020 – The Chinese wildlife trade is mired in long-held beliefs about the benefits of eating exotic and often endangered animals for good health. But the reality stands in stark contrast. The markets in China where live wild animals, including endangered species like pangolins, are bought and sold have often acted as petri dishes for the germination and spread of deadly diseases like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and the deadly bird flu, with each outbreak claiming hundreds of human victims.

Now, once again, China’s wildlife markets have spawned another global public health crisis with the deadly coronavirus, a pneumonia-like illness that has so far claimed nearly 80 human lives and sickened at least 2,700 more, providing more evidence than ever why the country needs to shut down its wildlife markets for good.

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The threat has spread to several other nations outside China, including the United States, where five cases of the illness have been confirmed.

Reports coming out of China describe a nation in panic, its people angry over the government’s failure to act decisively to address the public health dimensions of the crisis. But it has also generated criticisms of the nation’s guarded efforts to end the wildlife trade despite the many deadly precedents of past scares. 

“Chinese society is boiling with anger at wildlife policy failures,” says Humane Society International’s China policy specialist, Peter Li. “Social media is full of posts condemning the refusal to shut down the wildlife markets. This is the worst Chinese New Year in China’s recent history.”

Nearly two weeks after the world heard of this new coronavirus, China took a decisive step by announcing a temporary ban on all wildlife markets, as well as wildlife transport and online wildlife trade, in the interests of its citizens’ health and safety, and in the interests of safeguarding public health worldwide. According to the Washington Post, in a commentary published Friday, state China Central Television condemned the consumption of wild animals and called the new coronavirus a “game meat virus.” It also took to task those “who love to eat, poach, and trade wild animals.”

But censure and temporary bans are not enough; China needs to act firmly to end all wildlife markets for good, in the interests of its citizens’ health and safety, and in the interests of safeguarding public health worldwide. Part of this involves educating people about the dangers of consuming wild animals.

China needs to act firmly to end all wildlife markets for good, in the interests of its citizens’ health and safety, and in the interests of safeguarding public health worldwide.

The virus is said to have originated at the Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market in the city of Wuhan, where vendors were selling animals, including live cats and dogs, turtles, snakes, rats, hedgehogs and marmots. Menus and signboards posted online also listed foxes, wolf cubs, monkeys and masked palm civets, among other animals. These wildlife markets are filthy, crowded places where animals are displayed alive in small cages. Once purchased, they are often slaughtered on site, creating not just a human health hazard but also an animal welfare nightmare.

Many of the animals traded and killed at the markets are threatened with extinction. In fact, global wildlife experts say trade in live wild animals is one of the biggest threats to the survival of several species. And while China may be in the news right now, such trade is not limited to one country—it happens globally, and even right here, in the United States, where diseases like salmonellosis, food poisoning caused by bacteria, have spread to humans from pet reptiles.

The last time China made an effort to close down its wildlife markets was after the SARS outbreak some 17 years ago in 2003, although that effort ceased about six months later. HSI is supportive of the Chinese government making the wildlife trade ban a permanent policy. China has shown great resolve in recent years in ending the unnecessary exploitation of wildlife, most notably by cracking down on the ivory trade. We hope that this latest outbreak, and the havoc it has caused, will inspire the government to act just as decisively to end the country’s wildlife markets. For the people of China, and the world, an ounce of prevention, in this case, would certainly be worth much more than a pound of cure.Kitty Block is President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States and CEO of Humane Society International, the international affiliate of the HSUS. www.humanesociety.org