Trade in pangolin linked to Covid-19 outbreak

POSSIBLE CAUSE: On February 7, the Chinese government announced at a press conference that they had identified the pangolin – a small scaly anteater, considered to be the most trafficked wild mammal in the world – as the potential source of Covid-19.
POSSIBLE CAUSE: On February 7, the Chinese government announced at a press conference that they had identified the pangolin – a small scaly anteater, considered to be the most trafficked wild mammal in the world – as the potential source of Covid-19.  
Image: Getty Images

Among the multiple unknowns spawned by Covid-19, two things are clear: the origin of the virus in a market in central China, and the need to clamp down on illegalities in the wildlife trade industry.

That’s the view of Traffic, the global wildlife trade monitoring network, which spoke to The Herald about the virus this week.

As the first reports of Covid-19 emerged in December 2019, Chinese researchers got to work in the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, to where the movements of the first infected person had been traced.

On February 7, they announced at a press conference that they had identified the pangolin – a small scaly anteater, considered to be the most trafficked wild mammal in the world – as the potential source of Covid-19.  Genetic sequences drawn from the animal and “patient zero” showed a 99% similarity.

Just over a month later, the science has not yet been finalised.

But the initial research findings and the link to previous Coronaviruses like the one that caused the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) epidemic in 2003, which was found to have been transmitted to people by the civet, a highly traded mongoose-like creature native to tropical Africa and Asia, pointed the same way, Traffic senior programme officer, Markus Bergener, said.

Bergener said markets like the one at Wuhan were extraordinary focal points.

“They put people in close proximity, under often unhygienic conditions, with highly stressed wild animals, which have been brought in from all over the world.“

He said Traffic worked together with a wide range of government and private sector stakeholders in a wide range of countries around the world.

“The objective is to ensure that trade in wildlife is both legal and sustainable. Although it is not a direct part of our work, Traffic also strongly supports the humane treatment of wild animals in trade.”

He said he felt that the Covid-19 crisis would raise awareness of the illegal wildlife trade and its potentially catastrophic impacts on human health and the global economy, as well as on the species concerned and associated ecosystems. 

“This awareness will play a role in ensuring the success of initiatives to tackle the illegal wildlife trade, not only in China but in all wildlife source, transit and market states.”

For now, the Chinese government had banned the consumption of terrestrial wild animals as well as the hunting, trading and transportation of these animals, he noted.

“Traffic will continue to engage with relevant government agencies and other stakeholders in a multi-faceted approach that tackles illegal wildlife trade at all points of the supply chain. This should also support efforts to lower the risk of wildlife-linked virus transmission in the future.

“We anticipate that, in the future, consumers of wildlife products, especially food-related products, will be more questioning about the source of these products, and the manner in which they have been processed, stored and transported.”

University of Pretoria Centre for Viral Zoonoses director Prof Wanda Markotter said while the civet had been tied to the Sars epidemic the understanding was that it was an intermediate host and the original host was the horseshoe bat. 

This link back to bats was likely the same with Covid-19 but it was important to get certainty on the intermediate host, she said.

“A pool of diverse viruses will continue to circulate in wildlife. Knowing the diversity, the species implicated and their geographical distribution – together with understanding specific human activities that can increase the risk of spillover – is essential to prevent future outbreaks and to sustain a healthy global economy.

According to a 2016 report by wildlife advocacy group WildAid on the surviving pangolin populations in Africa and Asia, more than a million of these animals were poached over the previous decade.

Pangolin meat is considered a delicacy in China and a status symbol when served to guests.  The scales – like rhino horn and human fingernails, made of keratin – are used as a traditional cure for rheumatism and skin disease, and to heal wounds.

Former UK environment minister Therese Coffey said in 2018 that global illegal wildlife trade was worth up to £17-billion (about R349-billion) annually.

“It is one of the most lucrative forms of organised crime. It fuels corruption and insecurity, undermines development, and brings crime and instability into some of the world’s poorest communities. 

“It is causing unimaginable damage.”

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