Zoonotic diseases: Continued wildlife exploitation will lead to next pandemic

Continued exploitation of the natural world through hunting, trade, habitat degradation, and urbanisation has shifted mammal populations and led to the rise in infectious animal diseases that can jump over to humans, writes Sarmin Akter for South Asia Monitor

Sarmin Akter Aug 02, 2020

In a fast-changing world with growing concerns about the exploitation of wildlife, an increasing number of animal and human diseases are emerging from wildlife. Wildlife and human health are closely interlinked, as illustrated by the recent outbreak of COVID-19. As of July 30, 2020, there are more than 17 million confirmed cases worldwide of COVID-19, including more than 660,000 reported deaths. As people increase their contact with wildlife, and their habitat, its more and more likely diseases called zoonotic diseases are being transmitted between animals and humans. Zoonotic diseases are gaining importance because of the difficulties faced in preventing their spread and protecting the world from the pandemic.

The world from time to time has been witnessing a significant and serious threat and consequences to public and animal health by wildlife. According to the United Nations environment programme (UNEP), about 60 percent of infectious diseases in humans and 75 percent of all emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic. As these diseases are between animals and humans so the transmission of zoonotic diseases from wild animals occurs mostly by contact with wild animals, sometimes by bite, aerosols, vectors like mosquitoes, ticks, fleas, or through contaminated food and water. Among all the animals, bats have been implicated as the likely reservoir for many deadly viruses and global zoonotic diseases. They are the sources for rabies, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), and COVID19. They are also natural hosts forHendra, Nipah, Ebola, and Marburg. Rodents are also a reservoir of zoonotic diseases associating with more than 80 zoonotic diseases.


Wildlife exploitation and zoonotic diseases 

Now the question arises that how can wildlife exploitation be a reason for such zoonotic diseases. On July 6, UNEP and International Livestock Research Institute in its joint report identified exploitation of wildlife as one of the seven trends responsible for zoonotic diseases. Thus, it is clear, wildlife exploitation is a reason for such diseases but why it is a reason will become clear if we light the torch on the following instances:

Consumption of wildlife: Wild meat production from both the illegal and legal production of farms has been rapidly increasing over the last 60 years. Wild meat is also harvested from more extensive production system rangelands in the tropics, temperate region, and the arctic. The total global legal production reached 2.11 billion (metric)tonnes in 2018 and global demand for animal meat has increased 260 percent in the past half-century, exacerbating the problem according to the joint report.

Hunting of wildlife: Hunters in many forested regions risk disease when in contact with an animal who is injured by an animal during its capture, or while carrying animal, or if they cut themselves when butchering the animal which facilitates the transfer of body fluids from the animal to the hunter. It is noteworthy that ebola in central Africa was spread among hunters while harvesting and handling infected gorilla and chimpanzee cadavers for meat consumption. 

Illegal Trade of Wildlife: According to Interpol, the value of illegal wildlife trade is between USD $10-20 billion per year that gives us a glimpse of how crucially it fuels wildlife exploitation. Illegal wildlife trade contributes to habitat destruction, which removes necessary buffer zones between humans and wild fauna, fostering transmission of diseases. The SARS, which has shown its potential in China as respiratory and gastrointestinal disease, was because of the illegal trade of wildlife. Dr. Christine Johnson of the University of California said. "Species that are trafficked in the wildlife trade are typically brought out of the wild alive. They are put into cages with others in very dense sort of crowded conditions that foster disease transmission."

Disease jumping from animals to humans

Dr. Delia Grace, a senior epidemiologist, and veterinarian at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) described COVID-19 as a highly predictable pandemic. She said that there was a "very clear trend" since the 1930s that showed that 75 percent of emerging human diseases stemmed from wildlife. Maarten Kappelle, the head of scientific assessment at UNEP said, “If we did restore the balance between the natural world and the human one, these outbreaks will become increasingly prevalent." Continued exploitation of the natural world through hunting, trade, habitat degradation, and urbanisation has shifted mammal populations and led to the rise in infectious animal diseases that can jump over to humans. 

UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen said, “We have intensified agriculture, expanded infrastructure, and extract resources at the expense of our wild spaces and the science is clear that if we keep exploiting wildlife and destroying our ecosystems, then we can expect to see a steady stream of these diseases jumping from animals to humans in the years ahead.” It is clear therefore that the exploitation of wildlife causes wildlife to decline in numbers through hunting and trading, which will endanger species survival and ultimately put us at risk of emerging infectious disease-causing pandemic.

Treaty obligation for wildlife conservation

Although the wide-scale manufacture and use of antibiotics and vaccines made it seem like the battle against infections was being won. But zoonotic diseases from wildlife, sometimes cause fatal outbreaks, and finding a cure for it causes difficulty. According to UNEP, about two million people, mostly in developing nations, die from neglected zoonotic diseases every year. In the last two decades alone, zoonotic diseases have caused economic losses of more than $100 billion. This does not include the cost of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is expected to reach $9 trillion over the next few years, the report said. In Gabcikobo-NagymarosCase (Hungary vs Slovakia),1997, International Court of Justice (ICJ) asserted that obligation to protect the environment as obligation ‘erga omnes' e.g.obligations that states have towards the international community as a whole. The World Trade Organisation (WTO)  in the shrimp turtle case (1998) acknowledged the existence of a “sufficient nexus” between the endangered population of sea turtles located in Asian waters and the US to allow the latter to claim a legal interest in their e.g. shrimp turtle conservation. 

However, there are Big 5 convention for wildlife conservation e.g., the Convention on international trade-in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) 1973, Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) 1979, Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) 1992, the Ramsar Convention 1971 and the World Heritage Convention 1972.  While CITES requires the state party to prohibit trade in listed species other than in accordance with this convention, to penalize trade-in violation of the convention and to confiscate illegally traded specimens. Article II, III, IV of CMS also require the parties to the convention to conserve endangered migratory species listed in Appendix I and II. Article 5 of CBD states that each contracting party shall cooperate as far as possible with other contracting parties in taking appropriate measures for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity. State parties are under a legal obligation to conserve wetlands and waterfowl and take appropriate national and international measures for the protection of cultural and natural heritage under the Ramsar Convention and WorldHeritage Convention respectively.

Besides these, One Health approach defined as the collaborative effort  to attain optimal health for people, animals and the environment can be applied as a key tool for effective management for zoonotic diseases and thereby helps us to prevent the next pandemic.

(The writer is LL.M student at Jagannath University, Dhaka, Bangladesh. The views expressed are personal. She can be contacted at sharminshetu120@gmail.com)

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