Wildlife trafficking is a clear and present danger, and not just for endangered species. It also represents a serious risk to people.
By trafficking protected species across continents far from their original habitats, criminal syndicates with global reach are helping spread new diseases across the globe. At the same time, they are undermining disease monitoring strategies by smuggling exotic animals across national borders with impunity.
Poaching and other forms of biodiversity destruction, such as deforestation, are also removing “natural buffer zones between humans and wildlife, making it more likely for animal pathogens to come into contact with people”, in the words of the United Nations Environment Program.
"When criminal actors trade in endangered species, they weaken entire ecosystems and threaten essential links to the world's biological diversity," says UN Environment. "Samples that are traded illegally are also much less likely to be sold or bought where sanitary standards are being properly enforced, making the spread of disease more likely," he adds.
Numerous disease-carrying pathogens that have caused serious health problems in recent years and decades can be traced back to wild animals. The Ebola virus, which causes often fatal hemorrhagic fever, likely originated from a wild animal, possibly a fruit bat, in Africa in the mid-1970s. Meanwhile, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 likely originated from a horseshoe bat in China late last year.
"We know that many infectious diseases emerging in recent times have originated in wildlife," says UN Environment. "Many of them were not considered illegally traded CITES-listed species," he adds. "However, illegal wildlife trade flows will only make these episodes worse, by degrading or bringing people closer to animal habitats and thus contributing to the spread of disease."
The tricky thing is that animals infected with viruses and other pathogens may show no signs of being sick, which can give the people who handle them a false sense of security. Research has shown that wild bats, which are important reservoirs for various coronaviruses, are often largely immune to those viruses. However, once those viruses manage to jump the species barrier for humans, they can easily become lethal to us.
Alarmingly, bats, which comprise a quarter of all mammalian species on Earth, can harbor up to 3,000 coronaviruses. Many of these germs could infect people one day. Since the 1980s, disease outbreaks have tripled every decade and more than two-thirds of the diseases behind them originated in animals. Most were transmitted to people from wild animals like bats.
By depriving wild animals of their habitats, we are unknowingly generating the specter of sickening millions of people around the world with new diseases for which we have no cure, as has happened with the current COVID-19 pandemic.
"The loss of biodiversity is one of the greatest global threats in our time, and it also means a narrower genetic pool and, therefore, less resistance to resist diseases of any kind," says the UN.