The governmental Ministries and Departments of Health, the Environment, Forestry and Fisheries and the Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development of South Africa were on Tuesday sent an urgent letter and science-based white paper from Humane Society International-Africa (HSI) calling for immediate action to ban wildlife trade, transport and consumption - particularly of mammals and birds which are known to contract coronaviruses - in order to address the threat they pose to public health in addition to animal welfare and species conservation.
The urgent plea to Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize, the Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, Barbara Creecy, and the Minister of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development, Thoko Didiza, as well as the Director of Veterinary Public Health, Dr Mphane Molefe, is part of a coordinated action by HSI to governments across the globe in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
Although the exact origins of the current coronavirus are still unknown, it likely originated in a market in Wuhan, China selling and slaughtering live wild animals on site. Multiple infectious disease outbreaks have been tied to the wildlife trade including SARS in 2003 which is believed to have been passed to humans by civets sold for meat.
An estimated 75% of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic (spread from non-human animals to humans).
Wildlife trade can be deadly
Teresa Telecky, vice president of wildlife at Humane Society International, said: "The current Covid-19 pandemic has illustrated just how deadly the wildlife trade can be, not just for the wild animals involved, but also for people throughout the world. Covid-19 has killed thousands of people and will likely have lasting negative impacts on local and global economies. It is a tipping point that governments globally must not ignore.
"Wildlife markets worldwide are a petri dish for the next global pandemic, so governments across the globe must do everything they can to prevent this from happening again, and that means banning this dangerous trade and helping those traders involved find alternative livelihoods as quickly as possible."
South Africa also has wildlife markets of concern which sell plants, herbs and hundreds of wildlife species for traditional medicine or "muti". Several muti markets exist in the country, selling both live and dead wildlife and their parts, including from CITES-listed species such as pangolin, cheetah, leopard, lion and vulture.
For years, South Africa has faced an onslaught of wildlife poaching and trade that has decimated multiple species, from pangolins (the most trafficked mammal in the world), and rhinos, to elephant to abalone.
Captive lion breeding
South Africa is also infamous for its legal captive lion breeding industry, with approximately 12 000 lions living in more than 300 captive wildlife facilities across the country. The lions from this industry are exploited from cradle to grave, first as props for tourist-driven cub-petting, selfies and lion walks, and once past their tourist sell-by date, they are shot in canned hunts for trophies or exported for the lion bone trade in Asia. Numerous accounts of discoveries of cruelty and unhygienic conditions at "lion abattoirs" have raised alarm bells concerning disease transmission between the lions and their human handlers such as meat processors and lion handlers.
Furthermore, it is deeply concerning that South Africa also mandates and promotes the domestication and breeding of wild species for human consumption. Proposed amendments to the Meat Safety Act 2000 (Act No 40 of 2000) seek to include wild species such as giraffe, rhino, elephant, hippo, crocodile, birds, fish as suitable for slaughter as food for human and animal consumption.
'Ticking time bomb'
Audrey Delsink, wildlife director at Humane Society International/Africa, said: "South Africa's legal lion bone trade is a ticking time bomb for an African specific zoonotic outbreak with severe human health consequences. Furthermore, traditional muti markets are often a smokescreen for a thriving illegal trade in threatened and endangered species. Now more than ever, the South African government must adopt a precautionary approach and take urgent action, adopting a stringent One Health policy, by banning wildlife trade for both human consumption and traditional medicinal use, to ensure South Africa does not become the site of the next pandemic."
To facilitate the global ban, HSI also urges governments to actively transition citizens who rely economically on the wildlife trade into alternative livelihoods, and to provide more resources for educating the public on the health risks of the wildlife trade. China introduced a temporary ban on the sale of wild animals for food in early March, but has yet to codify it into law, and wild animals used for other purposes such as traditional medicine are notably excluded from the prohibition, as are some "farmed" wildlife.
Banning trade of wild animals, dogs and cats
This month, the Chinese city of Shenzhen took an enlightened step further by permanently banning all trade and consumption of wild animals, plus dogs and cats. However, globally, and especially in other parts of Asia, thousands of similar markets of the type linked to both SARS and Covid-19, still exist and pose a continued threat to human health.
Wildlife on sale for human consumption at a wet market in Indonesia. (Dog Meat Free Indonesia)
Typically, in such markets a variety of wild species are crowded together in unhygienic and stressful conditions, and frequently slaughtered on the premises or offered live as exotic pets, providing ideal circumstances for the spread of zoonoses.
"Temporary bans on the wildlife trade are a good start but in order to fully address potential future outbreaks, it is imperative that countries permanently ban the wildlife trade and include wildlife used for any purpose including for medicine, fur, pets and others. With the stakes so high for global human health and wildlife protection, there is no place for complacency or half measures," Telecky explains.
- Wild bird markets in Vietnam have been implicated in the spread of the highly pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI H5N1) virus;
- Past surveys of wildlife markets in Lao PDR have identified mammals on sale known to be capable of hosting 36 zoonotic pathogens;
- A recent literature analysis using TRAFFIC survey data from wild meat restaurants, roadside stalls and markets in Malaysia, identified 51 zoonotic pathogens that could be hosted by wild species found on sale.
HSI also warns that wildlife bans must be comprehensive and apply to the sale and consumption of all wild mammal and bird species, or risk missing the potential intermediate host for the next epidemic.
Bats have been identified as the natural host or reservoir source for a wide range of viruses, including coronaviruses, and are sold as delicacies in East and Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, and Sub-Saharan Africa. However, coronaviruses from bats use an intermediate species in order to "weaponise" and pass the virus to humans, so partial bans won't fix the problem.
Also on World Health Day, HSI/Africa joins with 241 organisations in signing an open letter to the World Health Organisation calling for it to exclude the use of wildlife in Traditional Chinese Medicine.