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WWF Urges SE Asia to Ban Unregulated Wildlife Trade Amid Coronavirus Outbreak

A woman puts on a mask near a notice board that reads "Bans on wild animals trading following the coronavirus outbreak" at a cafe in Beijing, Feb. 10, 2020.
A woman puts on a mask near a notice board that reads "Bans on wild animals trading following the coronavirus outbreak" at a cafe in Beijing, Feb. 10, 2020.

The coronavirus epidemic prompted China to ban the unregulated trade of wildlife and the consumption of wild animals. Now the World Wildlife Fund (WWW) is calling on Southeast Asia -- a key hub of wildlife trafficking and source of contraband for Chinese customers -- to follow in China's footsteps.

The environmental group applauded Beijing’s prohibition but said it was not enough. While the exact cause of the coronavirus outbreak is not known, officials believe it may be linked to the human handling of raw wild animal meat.

“Southeast Asian countries must learn from China’s example and ban the sales of wild meat for the health of their citizens and to prevent damage to their economies, as is happening currently due to COVID-19,” A. Christy Williams, the WWF International regional director for the Asia Pacific, said. “This means that they must stop the trade from moving into their territories.”

He was referring to the fact that in the past, similar prohibitions in China of other products, such as ivory, led traffickers to move their trade into Southeast Asia. In other words, China’s current ban on wild meat could move the trade to its neighbors, which is why WWF Asia Pacific is urging other nations to follow suit with their own bans. It recommended that governments increase market inspections and raise awareness among the public to stop the sale and consumption of wildlife products.

From the swine flu to the avian influenza, Asia has had experience with epidemics originating in human contact with animal products.

While the concern around the current coronavirus epidemic is primarily about human health, it may also yield the benefit of having fewer animals trafficked. China has long been a major market for animal products such as rhino horn and pangolin skins. Besides wildlife trafficking among Chinese citizens, this has led traffickers to do business in nearby developing nations, which they can use to source animal products or to transfer the products from farther afield.

In Vietnam for instance, which shares a land border with China, the environmental groups Education for Nature (ENV), Four Paws International, and World Animal Protection are trying to convince owners to give up their sun bears and Asiatic black bears, whose bile is collected and sold for perceived medicinal benefits in China and elsewhere.

“The bear bile industry was once profitable and in-demand,” Nguyen Thi Phuong Dung, the vice director of ENV, said. “However, as more people choose to not buy bear bile, more farmers are asking their bears for forgiveness and giving them better lives at a rescue center.”

Her group said that bears have been tortured and that hundreds remain in cages. Vietnam had thousands of bears 15 years ago, a number that has decreased to less than a thousand now because of the bile trafficking, according to Four Paws.

Environmental groups in Asia have cited ethical reasons in appealing to people to stop the wildlife trafficking. However with the coronavirus epidemic, the groups are now also appealing to people’s self interest. Past epidemics show that just focusing on the containment of infected individuals is not enough, but there needs to be control over the use of animal products as well, said Ron Ryuji Tsutsui, the chairperson of the WWF CEOs group in the Asia Pacific.

The coronavirus has already had some unintended environmental benefits, such as improved air quality in some Asian cities as fewer factories and cars on the road emit less greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. Tsutsui hopes that tighter regulatory control of the wildlife trade in the wake of the virus will be good not just for humans but for animals too.

“China’s decision to deal with the source of the problem -- permanently closing markets and banning the eating of wild meat -- is a game changer,” he said of the response to the coronavirus. “All Asian governments need to follow this example in the interest of human health, as well as the conservation of wildlife.”

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