Opinion | Beyond bans: Why wet market closures are just the tip of the zoonotic iceberg
The global mayhem caused by the coronavirus has prompted widespread calls for the closure of wildlife meat markets, where the virus is believed to have originated.
However, amidst this fervor, the ongoing and destructive trade of wildlife by bushmeat hunters in rural communities across Asia, Africa, and South America persists. This fact has not been addressed by the international community—an oversight that could have grave consequences for preventing future pandemics.
Pressuring governments to issue bans and closures of wet markets holds real value for preventing the emergence of infectious disease. However, it falls short of addressing the root issue: the pervasive circulation of bushmeat within communities. The demand for wildlife will persist even if wet markets close, as bushmeat holds immense cultural, medicinal, and spiritual value for many communities around the world.
Wildlife conservationist Dr. Colin A. Chapman has spent 30 years studying the effects of disease, nutrition, stress, and climate change on biodiversity and primate abundance in East Africa. He believes that we must shift the approach away from the narrow perspective of wet markets. Instead, he suggests adopting a comprehensive understanding that considers local bushmeat hunting and the social constructs sustaining these practices.
Controlling the informal trade of bushmeat will be a challenge in low-income communities. In many African countries, the communities adjacent to national parks are the most economically deprived. Illegal hunting and the trade of bushmeat provides people with a quick cash income for which there are few alternatives. Closing or banning markets entirely will likely make hunters and their families less-well off, and does not provide market sellers or hunters with alternative jobs and means of income.
One option to reduce reliance on bushmeat for food is the expansion and diversification of agricultural products. Providing drought resistant seeds, fertilizers, and crops high in value, as well as supplemental nutrition, may help encourage more farming over hunting. The African Wildlife Foundation’s “Congo Shipping Project” is an example of a successful scheme that provided transportation of additional crops to markets, encouraging the distribution of crops over bushmeat.
At the same time, scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology have demonstrated the importance of site-specific education, particularly on the disease risk and environmental impacts of bushmeat hunting. An understanding that bushmeat leads to pandemics and the extinction of valued species will equip the next generation with knowledge that will incentivize sustainable practices throughout their lifetimes.
Educational programs are not only relevant in schools, but also in local community organizations, churches, and among decision makers. These programs must be based on careful science and mustn’t overlook the inherent cultural value that bushmeat represents for many populations.
A report by the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) emphasize that solutions for reducing the risks associated with the trade will require coordinated efforts. Specifically, close monitoring schemes alongside legislation and enforcement were highly recommended.
These interventions are undeniably expensive and require site-specific planning and implementation. In Africa, conservation efforts are supported heavily by the tourism industry. Since the pandemic, biodiversity and wildlife conservation has been left highly vulnerable to human threats—resulting in elevated poaching, habitat destruction, and loss of biodiversity.
Even without the added vulnerability of the pandemic, rates of bushmeat extraction is staggering. Studies in the Congo Basin estimate that each year approximately four million metric tons of bushmeat are extracted, the equivalent of four and a half million cows.
Even endangered chimpanzees, our closest living relatives, are being hunted. In the northeastern regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo, it was estimated that up to 7% of the chimpanzee population is killed each year for bushmeat.
Such hunting rates are unsustainable and have already resulted in the eradication of entire populations. In the last 40 years alone, 12 large vertebrate populations have been extirpated in Vietnam and over longer timescales, human hunting has been responsible for the extinction of much of the unique megafauna of Madagascar.
The coronavirus has created an atmosphere of uncertainty, scarcity and mass panic. Demands for banning the wildlife trade are intensifying.
In the past, such bans were self-defeating. In China, three legislative attempts on banning bushmeat have failed , in 2004, 2016, and 2020. Banning wildlife hunting or consumption entirely amidst unaddressed social norms will only heighten the unregulated trade of bushmeat, elevate organized crime, and create the impression of a shortage, likely increasing the prices and incentives to poach.
The current atmosphere of uncertainty created by the coronavirus presents an opportunity for targeted, site-specific solutions, says Dr. Colin A. Chapman.
Leveraging the current crisis to implement tailored solutions—alternative livelihoods, diversified crops, educational programs, and heightened regulations—will more effectively curb the bushmeat trade and mitigate the risk of future pandemics. In doing so, conservationists hope we can create a win-win scenario whereby both wildlife hunting decreases and hunters have viable alternatives, reducing the threat of another global pandemic.
About the author:
Cate Twining-Ward is a correspondent alumnus of Planet Forward, grand-prize winner of Storyfest 2020, and graduate of the George Washington University.
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This story also is published on Mongabay.