ç The Coronavirus, Wet Markets, and Action

From the Desk of Dan Ashe

The Coronavirus, Wet Markets, and Action

Photo of live birds in hanging cages at a wildlife market.

Benjamin Franklin said, “Diligence is the mother of good luck.”

The coronavirus crisis, devastating in terms of human suffering and economic loss, may have a legacy of progress. Suddenly, world attention is focused on wild animal markets. Also known as “wet markets,” these are places where wild animals—alive and dead—are sold in public. 

Wildlife markets throughout China and Southeast Asia sell a variety of species, including birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals, often including animals from both legal and illegal markets.  Stall by stall, cage upon cage, animals and animal products are near one another—and to people—creating a recipe for contagion.

But out of crisis, opportunity and action can spring.

On 24 March 1989, the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaskas Prince William Sound. The resulting oil spill was a tragedy for wildlife and people. It was also a catalyst for action.

On 18 August 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed into law the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. This law was built on a decade of work by the U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries. I know, because I was a young Committee staffer and had opportunity to contribute to that effort. The legacy of the Committee’s hard work is now enshrined in a law that has prevented untold spills and supported the rapid and effective response to many more.

Diligence was the mother of good luck.

Does today’s coronavirus crisis provide a similar opportunity for action? Wildlife trafficking devastates populations of endangered species and negatively affects the livelihoods of communities that depend upon ecotourism revenue.

The world is now seeing the public health risk that is associated with wildlife trafficking.

What is worse, this has happened before. The 2002-03 SARS pandemic originated in a live animal market in Guangdong, China. That pandemic impacted more than 8,000 people globally.  And according to the International Air Transport Association, it cost global economies $33 billion, including over $7 billion in lost travel revenue for the airline industry.

The current crisis will have an even more devastating economic impact, as China’s supply chains are disrupted and travel is restricted.  The coronavirus death toll now surpasses 1,000 people and more than 25,000 people have been infected across 25 countries.  Recently, the Federal Reserve chairman warned Congress about the economic ramifications of the virus, saying that it could lead to “…disruptions in China that spill over to the rest of the global economy.”

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums and its members are critical voices in this conversation.  We are experts in animal health and welfare.  Through the Wildlife Trafficking Alliance, we work to reduce, and eventually eliminate, the illegal wildlife trade. The Zoo and Aquarium All Hazards Preparedness, Response, and Recovery (ZAHP) Fusion Center, hosted by AZA, serves as a conduit between the emergency management sector and the wildlife community. 

AZA joins the Wildlife Conservation Society in calling for urgent action to:

  1. close live animal markets that contribute to illegal and unsustainable trade, threaten human health, and jeopardize animal welfare;
  2. strengthen efforts to combat trafficking of wild animals within countries and across borders; and
  3. work to change dangerous wildlife consumption behaviors.

Ben Franklin had it right.  Our diligence in fighting the illegal wildlife trade has created some good luck. The time for action is now.


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