As 2020 started, the New Mexico State Game Commission had just finalized its rule to increase wildlife trapping. The commissioners, including a hastily-appointed new commission chair, voted overwhelmingly in favor, proving that the governor had no interest in appointing a commission interested in protecting wildlife. Now wildlife policy has almost been forgotten in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. But this is not the time to ignore wildlife trapping.
The coronavirus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic is known as SARS-CoV-2, reflecting its close relationship to SARS-CoV-1, the virus which caused the 2003 epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome. Both viruses spread from wild bats to live-animal “wet markets” in China. It is unlikely that the virus spread directly from bats to humans. Civets are thought to have been intermediate hosts of SARS-CoV-1. Pangolins, the most heavily trafficked mammals in the world, may be intermediate hosts of SARS-CoV-2.
The SARS epidemic and COVID-19 pandemic were not spread by bats, civets, or pangolins roaming through China, then flying to Europe and North America. The true vectors of the disease are not wild animals but the humans who profit from wildlife trafficking. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) acknowledged this in a 2003 report Prevalence of IgG Antibody to SARS-Associated Coronavirus in Animal Traders — Guangdong Province, China, 2003.
Neither civets nor pangolins could have transmitted coronavirus to humans without the existence of live-animal markets, where viruses of different species can exchange genetic material and mutate. A recent study of SARS-CoV-2 concluded: “Although bats are likely reservoir hosts for SARS-CoV-2, the identity of any intermediate host that might have facilitated transfer to humans is unknown…. The discovery of multiple lineages of pangolin coronavirus and their similarity to SARS-CoV-2 suggests that pangolins should be considered as possible hosts in the emergence of novel coronaviruses and should be removed from wet markets to prevent zoonotic transmission.” Pangolins for the study were confiscated from a live market in Asia, showing the near impossibility of enforcing CITES rules against trafficking in threatened and endangered species, as long as live-animal markets remain legal.
A February 25 article in Foreign Policy examining the role of wildlife trafficking in spreading the virus interviewed Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance. “We’ve known about the conservation issues for 50 years. It’s never closed a market,” said Daszak. “The one thing that’s ever closed a market is the emergence of a pandemic: SARS. And now this one.”
It is not enough to stop trafficking in endangered species. The Bronx Zoo has a confirmed case that one of its tigers has contracted COVID-19. While the exact route of transmission may be difficult to establish, it was clearly from a human, most likely a Bronx Zoo employee or contractor. No cases of COVID-19 have been identified in wild tigers, and there have been no cases of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from a feline to a human.
The infographic above was developed by the Wildlife Conservation Society, which was originally founded to establish the Bronx Zoo and other zoos in New York City. The Bronx Zoo tiger is a victim of wildlife trafficking carried on by the zoo industry. Where this tiger came from is a trade secret of WCS/Bronx Zoo, so there is no way to know whether it was legally taken from the wild, or is a captive-bred descendant of a tiger from the wild. It is time to shut down all wildlife trafficking, whether by zoos, fur trappers, or live-animal markets. The pandemic may finally provide the opportunity, by disrupting business as usual. Society’s reaction to the pandemic will prove more significant than the coronavirus infection itself.
By disrupting business as usual, the pandemic may provide an unprecedented opportunity to break from the standard lobbying model, which has been hampered by collaboration between wildlife protection lobbyists and the wildlife trafficking industry. The pandemic has forced WCS to close its Bronx Zoo to the public, thus depriving it of revenue.
Ammon Bundy, notorious for leading a group of armed ranchers to occupy Malheur Wildlife Refuge, is now organizing meetings to oppose social distancing. “I will be there, and I will bring as many people as I can,” he told those who attended the meeting he convened on March 26, a day after the statewide stay-at-home order went into effect. “We will form a legal defense for you. We will perform an active political defense for you. And we will also, if necessary, provide a physical defense for you, so that you can continue in your rights.”
Record sales of guns and ammunition, at a time when travel has slowed, will change the source of funding for state game departments, which up until now has relied heavily on sales of hunting and trapping licenses. As hunting and trapping decline, a greater portion of their revenue will come from the Federal Pittman-Robertson tax on guns and ammunition. It is time to replace the existing game departments, which answer primarily to hunters and trappers, with wildlife departments answerable to the majority of the public who do not hunt.
In the interest of public health and safety, we must permanently shut down the wildlife trafficking industry worldwide, including zoos and fur trapping, as well as live-animal markets.