Campaigners have urged China to apply a permanent ban on the wildlife trade following the coronavirus outbreak.
Markets selling live animals are considered a potential source of diseases that are new to humans.
There has been speculation just such a market in Wuhan could have been the starting point for the outbreak.
China put a temporary ban on the trade in wildlife as one measure to control the spread of coronavirus, but conservationists say it’s not enough.
They argue that, in addition to protecting human health, a permanent ban would be a vital step in the effort to end the illegal trading of wildlife.
Campaigners say that China’s demand for wildlife products, which find uses in traditional medicine, or as exotic foods, is driving a global trade in endangered species.
- Why are we catching more diseases from animals?
Major source of infection
More than 70% of emerging infections in humans are estimated to have come from animals, particularly wild animals.
Experts with the World Health Organization (WHO) say there’s a high likelihood the new coronavirus came from bats. But it might have made the jump to a currently unknown animal group before humans could be infected.
The viruses behind Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers) are also thought to have originated in bats. But they are thought to have circulated in civet cats and camels, respectively, before being transmitted to humans.
“We are coming into contact with species of wildlife and their habitats that we were not with before,” Dr Ben Embarek, with the department of nutrition and food safety at the WHO told the BBC.
“We are suddenly exposing ourselves to totally new viruses we have never been in contact with in the past.
“Therefore, we have a number of new diseases linked to new contacts between humans and previously unknown viruses, bacteria and parasites.”
A recent analysis of the nearly 32,000 known land-based vertebrate species showed that around 20% of them are bought and sold on the global wildlife market – either legally or illegally.
A study by the conservation group WWF showed the illegal wildlife trade is worth around $20bn per year. It is the fourth biggest illegal trade worldwide, after drugs, people smuggling and counterfeiting.
The wildlife products industry is a major part of the Chinese economy, and has been blamed for driving several species to the brink of extinction.
“This health crisis must serve as a wake-up call for the need to end the unsustainable use of endangered animals and their parts, as exotic pets, for food consumption and for their perceived medicinal value,” WWF said in a statement.
Dr Embarek agreed with this view.
“We want to avoid in the future having similar types of events, with new viruses that will again jump from animals to humans,” he explained.
“In that regard, it makes sense over the long-term to regulate the wildlife trade both for conservation and public health reasons, because we know that there is a constant risk of dramatic events happening again.”
The Chinese government, however, has made it clear the ban will be temporary.
“Raising, transporting or selling all wild animal species is forbidden from the date of the announcement until the national epidemic situation is over,” said a directive issued jointly by three Chinese agencies.
Beijing did announce a similar ban during the outbreak of Sars in 2002.
But conservationists said that, a few months after the announcements, authorities relaxed the reins and the trade bounced back.
Circumstances may be about to take a turn.
In September this year, Beijing is hosting a major global meeting on natural and biological resources, known as the Convention on Biological Diversity.
The convention, signed in 1992, has the main goal of protecting global biodiversity.
A report last year by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) found that one million species are at risk of extinction.
With the planet’s sustainability as a major global agenda, China is under scrutiny not only for what it is doing within its territory but also outside.
It’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) mega-scheme, that aims to build infrastructure across the globe to establish itself as a major global power, has been criticised for using natural resources unsustainably.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has repeatedly used the word “sustainability” while promoting the BRI in his speeches.
Recent editorials in China’s state-controlled media outlets have denounced the uncontrolled wildlife market in the country.
Conservationists say the coronavirus outbreak could provide China with an opportunity to prove that it is serious about protecting biodiversity.
“We see this as an opportunity for a permanent move to end the keeping, breeding, domestication and utilisation of wildlife, not just for the purposes of meat but also for traditional medicine,” said Debbie Banks, lead wildlife investigator with the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA).
Experts point to the success of the ban China has put on the import of ivory – after years of international pressure to save elephants from extinction.
But wildlife experts stress that the ban and regulation on wildlife products will need to be global – and not just in China.