After habitat loss by agricultural expansion and logging, over-exploitation stands as the main threat for wildlife worldwide. The extraction of fauna from their natural habitats is known as defaunation, if done faster than natural populations can recover, it is known as over-exploitation. Defaunation can be divided into two categories: Subsistence hunting and commercial hunting (Redford, K., 1992), legal or illegal. Subsistence hunting represents a vital source of protein to people living in rural areas, while commercial hunting includes consumption of body parts as traditional medicine, live animals for the pet trade and ornamental uses of body parts like trophy hunts (Ripple et al., 2016). Megafauna or comparably larger animals are the most affected, thus over-harvesting for human consumption of meat or body parts stands as the single biggest threat for large mammals, ray-finned fish, cartilaginous fish, amphibians, birds, and reptiles (Ripple et al., 2019).
Recent studies suggest that intensive, indiscriminate hunting has become a more immediate threat than moderate habitat degradation for faunal communities in the tropics, especially the Southeast Asia (Tilker et al., 2019; Harrison et al., 2016). The death of the last Sumatran rhino in November 2019 is not a coincidence, but another sign of the worldwide extinction crisis. Tigers are extinct in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. In the last 100 years, the Bali and Javan tigers, and the mainland subspecies of the Sumatran rhino (D. s. lasiotis) as well as the Vietnamese Javan rhino (Rhinoceros sondaicus annamiticus) went extinct. Tigers, elephants, rhinos, orangutans, leopards, tapir, banteng, all of the species within these groups are either classified as endangered or critically endangered in the region (Hance, J., 2019), with over-exploitation and habitat loss standing as the main reasons of threat.
In 2019, The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) declared that seven out of eight species of Pangolin, the most traded animals on earth, are endangered or critically endangered with all their populations decreasing (The International Union for Conservation of Nature, 2016). Pangolins together with Jaguar body parts are quoted in the Asian market at prices as high as cocaine (Navia, R., 2018). Both Pangolins and jaguars are chased over wrongly believed curative properties, “wildlife delicacies”, and in the case of jaguar tusks a symbol of status, strength and power.
Illegal but …
All eigth species of Pangolin were listed under CITES Appendix 1 in 2016, giving them the highest level of protection and banning all commercial trade. While most of the demand is coming from Asia, markets remain all over the world. At least 26,000 imports of Pangolin products were seized in the United States between 2004 and 2013. A report issued by Humane Society International found “medicinal” products containing or likely to contain Pangolin parts openly for sale online and at U.S. stores. Except for one species, and up to December 2019, the Trump administration had failed to propose Pangolin protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (Uhlemann, S., 2019).
Although it is often though that illegal wildlife traffic is a major problem in Asian or African countries, it has to be recognized as a global problem that requires close collaboration among border authorities. The European Union, as the largest single market for legal ivory trade in the world, stimulates demand that is used to mask illegal trade in ivory products (Banos, I., 2017). Despite major efforts to fight illegal wildlife traffic, the EU member states serve as a major transit point for species, mainly between products coming form South America and Africa to Asian markets. It is also the source and final market destination of some endangered species like the European eel or the rhino horn for which Ireland and Czech Republic stand among primary destination countries after China and Vietnam. Only in 2015 almost 2,000 live reptiles, together with corals, ivory, mammals and live birds were seized at EU borders, a number that is estimated to represent only 10 or 15 percent of the total illegal traded products in Europe.
Amid the recently declared global emergency caused by the coronavirus outbreak, a letter written by academics from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the nation’s top universities from China have openly recognized how ambiguity in the law, has paved the way for illegal trade by making illegal acts to appear legal. They wrote: “At present, there are loopholes in the procedures and management of the approval of domestication and breeding of wild animals by the forestry department. Often there are cases of protection, domestication or breeding, which are illegal purchases, sales and consumption of wild animals, and lay the ground for the trade and consumption of wild animals. Hidden danger”.
Up to us!
After being intensively hunted by its fur, and having lost more than 50% of its habitat, in September 2016 the world celebrated that one of the most emblematic species on earth, the Giant Panda, improved its conservation status passing from endangered to vulnerable, due to an increase in both population numbers and habitat. A victory attributable to decades of effort from the Chinese government that in 1992 started a ten year conservation plan to recover the species and its habitat. The initial plan and several following programmes included increasing capital investment, establishment of nature reserves, restoration of farmlands, and awareness and educational campaigns. Ma et al, 2018 showed that household attitudes were positive regarding giant panda protection efforts, even though farmers’ dependence on the natural resources provided by giant panda reserves significantly decreased over a 10 years period. Such programmes came along with the strict enforcement of several laws, including: “at least” a 10-year prison sentence and the confiscation of property, according to a law passed in 1987. Declared as a national treasure, Panda’s recovery is a demonstration that long-term political willingness along with strict law enforcement and education are all part of the right formula to bring species back from the extinction highway.
Scientists crystal ball
Wildlife illegal trade is commonly accompanied by pessimal sanitary regulations. Amid the trade chaos, conditions enable the spread of new infectious diseases originated in wild animals to “jump” into humans, known as zoonotic diseases. More than 70% of the new viruses originally existed in wildlife hosts without any threat to humans (Wang & Crameri, 2014), however as we degrade our environment and eat wildlife, our exposure to such diseases has increased, putting human health at risk. Allen et al., 2017 demonstrated that zoonotic emerging infectious disease risk is elevated in regions experiencing land-use changes and where wildlife biodiversity is high. In 2008, a global map of risks areas “predicted” that some regions of the world like China, India or tropical African countries have a higher outbreak risk associated to high species richness, but also a reduction of disease control capacity due to environmental degradation (Jones et al., 2008).
Preliminary information from Chinese disease control agencies points to the wildlife trade market in Wuhan, China as the source of the new coronavirus. An assessment of the market detected the coronavirus in the live wild animal section (Daly, N., 2020), where body secretions of about 40 species of live animals stacked on top of each other, serve as the perfect soup for a zoonotic disease outbreak. Chinese academics recognize “controlling or even eliminating wild animal food and related trade is not only necessary for ecological protection, but also of great significance for public health risk control”. Scientist suggest that reducing anthropogenic activities to conserve areas rich in wildlife diversity (Jones et al., 2008), and enforcing the laws on wildlife trade, will have an added value in reducing the likelihood of emerging new diseases. Up-to-date the coronavirus death toll has risen to more than 300 people, and estimations give more than US $60 billion as the economic cost. A wake-up call for governments to listen and act.
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