Covid-19: The better side of the devastationChina remains the most coveted destination for the illegal wildlife market. This must change.
Mahendra P Lama
A common trait of the global human population has been to be consistently inconsistent in repeating the world's devastating history and unabashedly working towards its self-destruction. Despite the irreparable scars of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings, states protractedly undergo cutthroat competition in manufacturing nuclear arsenals and accumulating weapons of mass destruction. Despite the 1918-20 Spanish flu devouring 50 million people, largely human-triggered pandemics like SARS, swine flu, Ebola, MERS and Covid-19 repeatedly invade the community of civilised human beings.
Therefore, when an Indian government-led ‘janata curfew’ confined and quarantined an overwhelming national population in an attempt to save it from the fatally invasive and incarcerating coronavirus, another living community somewhere nearby celebrated its rebirth and reposition after many decades. The voiceless wildlife community has been once again resurrected and reawakened by Covid-19. The wildlife community, that was in existence much earlier and later evolved, nurtured and coexisted along with human beings, suddenly became a central focus as they now carried in them zoonotic diseases that got transmitted to people causing pandemics.
As long as the wildlife remained confined to their natural habitat, they were like deities and vibrant actors in folk tales. Human civilisation required a larger playing field, and chose the voiceless wildlife community as exclusive partners to devour and enjoy. Hence the humans first became hunters and poachers, grabbed the wildlife’s food, manipulated the climate and displaced them to play a game of human-animal conflict. Apart from circuses and zoos, their avarice deepened as they wanted the entire voiceless wildlife community at their very doorsteps and markets and dining tables. Some in the name of anti-ageing medicines, ethnic food and aphrodisiac doses, and others in the name of chasing upward their social status.
This created one of the most time-savvy, vigil-resistant, consumer-friendly, jurisprudence-proof and technology-busting non-formal institutions of the global wildlife trade. Blending with herbs and leaves, red sandalwood and caterpillar fungus and ginseng and aloe vera, this trade’s footprint now became a global supply chain from mountainous forests to city-based guzzlers. The illicit trading mafia emerged as the proverbial queen bee.
It is widely believed that Covid-19 originated in the wet markets in Wuhan in China. Earlier in November 2002, the epicentre of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic was Foshan municipality in Guangdong province of China. While studying epidemiologic clues to SARS, Rui-Heng Xu et al examined seven severely infected patients and found that 'Patient 4 worked as a chef in a Zhongshan township restaurant, where he prepared steamed dishes and had contact with snakes, civet cats, foxes and rats. He infected his 30-year-old wife, a 39-year-old male friend who visited him in hospital and a 35-year-old male physician'. And also infected at least three healthcare workers.
China remains the most coveted destination for the overwhelmingly illegal wildlife market. Scores of both licensed and illegal commercial breeding centres for tigers, porcupines, pangolins, bears, snakes and rats have also not met the appetite that is largely a cultural outlier. A study by the Chinese Academy of Engineering in 2017 stated that, in 2016, there were more than 14 million people working in the wildlife-related industry that fetched $74 billion. The menu of deep-fried bats, boiled snakes, shark fin soup, pangolin stews, sweet and sour salamander and hotpot of frogs become the most sought after and relishing exotic food available for what Rebecca Wong called ‘Asian superconsumers’.
A report entitled ‘The State of Wildlife Trade in Macau’ released by wildlife conservation organisation TRAFFIC in 2019 found that China’s small Macau region alone imported around $97 million worth of wildlife commodities per year from 2005 to 2016, and around 100 tonnes of shark fins annually from 2012 to 2017, making it the third largest importer of shark fins in the world. On the other side, a visit to this wet market presents the most torturous look and frightening sight of unhygienic and contaminated spaces, cramped animal cages, unregulated abattoirs, and sales of already satiated and smuggled sick wild animals. In this surreptitiously built market, a complex virus homology exists where the spillover of animal contagions to humans actually happens. Like in bats in Ebola and pigs in SARS, this time the virus strains of pangolin matched 99 percent with the one causing Covid-19.
The Himalayas have untraceably lost some magnificently beautiful creations like porcupine, pangolin, flying squirrel, snake, toad, fox, salamander, varieties of birds, insects and butterflies, snow leopard, musk deer and scores of rare mammal and amphibians along with diverse flora through poaching and piracy. Another TRAFFIC report entitled ‘Assessment of Illegal Trade-Related Threats to Red Panda’ (2020) revealed significant incidences of crimes in Nepal, as against the lowest in Bhutan, on their endangered population of 14-15,000 in the eastern and north-eastern Himalayan subalpine regions. Could Covid-19 be then angrily triggering a ‘natural selection’ warning bell to those who dislocated the entire prey and predator relations and disrupted the ecosystem?
Accepting Wuhan’s illicit wildlife connection, China's apex law-making body, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress of the Communist Party of China, has now banned wildlife trade. China is a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and has imposed wildlife crime penalties of $29,441 and life imprisonment. However, wildlife trade remains unabated. In fact, the use of more sophisticated e-commerce and social media sites with highly embedded messages, hidden search stations and camouflaged apps keeps vigilance at bay.
The interests groups—globally interconnected, patronised by powerful syndicates and their sway spreading over to crime, conflicts and terrorism—are so deeply entrenched that closing down the licensed breeding farms and putting the smugglers in permanent quarantine is never going to be effective. Given US President Trump’s one-army racial crusade and parochial obsession to call it a 'Chinese virus', China once again has threefold challenges to minimise the adverse image and situations brought about by Covid-19 in its relations with the global community.
First, China must play its domestic demand side on a war footing, permanently and heavily clamping down on the demand for wildlife-based exotic delicacies, trophies, trinkets, leather products and pharmaceuticals. Second, it must bring comprehensive legislation so that wildlife traders, supply chain managers and global storehouses are treated the same as global terrorist actors; they must book and deal with them in the most inhuman way. And third, it must make its wildlife market and business actors open to the regulatory supervision of globally accepted international institutions, and allow initiatives like Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online to effectively work with Chinese technology firms Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent.
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