Covid-19: A Global Health Emergency Caused by Illegal Wildlife Trade


As the world faces the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the future of the environment has become ever more important. Zoonotic viruses continue to be of grave concern for global public health and security. Industry, urbanism and armed conflicts are encroaching on animal habitats in areas with great biodiversity, increasing the risk of transmission of viruses from animals to humans.

The novel coronavirus Covid-19 first appeared in the People’s Republic of China. Its discovery has been linked to wet markets in the city of Wuhan. As of 24 June 2020, the virus has spread to almost every country, causing 9.2 million infections and 476,911 deaths. The Report of the WHO-China Joint Mission on Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) notes the zoonotic origins of the virus. It states that “bats appear to be the reservoir of COVID-19 virus, but the intermediate host(s) has not yet been identified”. Wet markets in China have long sold endangered species in ignorance of the regulatory requirements laid down under international law.

Is the illegal trade in wildlife considered a threat to peace under Article 39 of the UN Charter? This article will reflect on research, international regulation and jurisprudence on wildlife trading. It will discuss potential future courses of action that can be considered by the international community.

International Health Emergencies

In the last decade, most of the WHO’s declarations of a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) have been related to zoonotic viruses. The International Health Regulations (IHR) in 2005 defined PHEIC as “an extraordinary event which is determined to constitute a public health risk to other States through international spread of disease; and to potentially require a coordinated international response”. The WHO notes that most emerging viruses are zoonotic viruses.

A study published by the Royal Society B cross-referenced 142 zoonotic viruses with the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The study found that primates, bats, rats and domesticated species account for the majority of zoonotic viruses. Poaching and trade of wildlife, and the conversion of land for agriculture were increasing the risk of animal to human transmission of viruses.

The Eastern Mediterranean Region of the WHO has experienced endemic zoonotic diseases such as rabies, anthrax and brucellosis. Emerging zoonotic diseases have included outbreaks of Yellow fever in Sudan, Chikungunya in Yemen, West Nile fever in Tunisia, and Q fever in Afghanistan. Countries affected by the MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) coronavirus included Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

In the early 20th-century, the Great Manchurian Plague was linked to the fur trade in Tarbagan marmots. In the early 2000s, the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) virus was also linked to wildlife. SARS should have been a wakeup call for prioritizing public health and preventing pathogens transmitting from wildlife. China, the country where Covid-19, SARS and the Manchurian plague originated, has a long history of consuming wildlife for human diets, medicinal purposes, and artisanal uses. China’s initial response to the Covid-19 outbreak is under intense scrutiny, particularly due to its early suppression of information reported by doctors in Wuhan. The WHO has also been criticised for being slow to respond.

Threat to Peace

The United Nations Security Council acknowledged the illicit trade in wildlife as a threat to international peace and security in 2014. The Security Council adopted Resolution 2136 which recalled “the linkage between the illegal exploitation of natural resources, including poaching and illegal trafficking of wildlife, illicit trade in such resources, and the proliferation and trafficking of arms as one of the major factors fuelling and exacerbating conflicts in the Great Lakes region of Africa”.

The most significant environmental decision from the International Court of Justice came on 31 March 2014 when it delivered the judgment in the case of Whaling in the Antarctic (Australia v. Japan: New Zealand Intervening). The court ordered Japan to stop its whaling programme in the Antarctic Ocean. It found Japanese activities to be in breach of the 1946 International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) issued a press statement on 22 April 2020 decrying the illegal trafficking of pangolins and its potential link to the Covid-19 outbreak. The statement noted that “the outbreak of COVID-19 has been linked to a coronavirus originating in wild bats that jumped to people via an intermediary animal, with pangolins among the leading suspects. These reclusive and nocturnal mammals are killed for their meat and their scales, which have been used medicinally in both Asia and Africa. The wild meat of pangolins is considered a delicacy, sold in wet markets, which could have served as a possible ground zero for the virus”. Pangolins continue to be the most trafficked mammal in the world. The primary source of the pangolin trade appears to be West and Central Africa.

The UNODC runs a Global Programme for Combating Wildlife and Forest Crime. In addition, the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC) was set up in 2010. It brought together the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Secretariat, the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL), UNODC, the World Bank, and the World Customs Organization (WCO).

The current pandemic has exposed the need to invest in non-traditional security resources. While there will be an expected focus on upgrading healthcare facilities, due attention should be paid to the regulation of wildlife trade. This is because wildlife will continue to be a source of human pathogens.

Wildlife Trade Regulation

The global wildlife trade has been described as “overlooked, underpoliced, and highly lucrative”. It is estimated to be worth between US$7 and US$23 billion annually. China is the world’s largest market for trafficked wildlife products. Despite being a state party to CITES, Chinese wildlife regulations and laws continue to have loopholes that allow the trade to flourish. In particular, the country allows breeding of CITES-listed endangered species. Captive breeding in China gives legal cover to traffickers.

In February 2020, the 13th National People’s Congress took a decision on “Comprehensively Prohibiting the Illegal Trade of Wild Animals, Eliminating the Bad Habits of Wild Animal Consumption, and Protecting the Health and Safety of the People”. In short, it banned the consumption of non-aquatic animals. However, the Wildlife Conservation Society noted that the decision did not extend to wildlife trade in fur, traditional medicine and research.

Even more concerning is the manner in which wildlife is being sold. Wet markets continue to be a staple of many cultures. In 2004, a study investigated the link between wet markets and respiratory diseases such as SARS and influenza.

Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, has recently called for a global ban on wildlife markets. The world would need to focus on wet markets in particular. The United Nations system will face scrutiny in the aftermath of the pandemic. One solution may lie in expanding the capacity of the UN system to regulate the wildlife trade. CITES and the protection of endangered species falls under the responsibility of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP). The international community should empower UNEP for more effective control of the global wildlife trade.

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