China needs to stop wildlife farming to prevent pandemics, experts say

Rescued wild pangolin in Qingdao ready for release, 2017, photo: Reuters
Rescued wild pangolin in Qingdao ready for release, 2017, photo: Reuters

China must not only crack down on wildlife trade but also shut legal loopholes that allow wild animals to be farmed, experts said after an investigation team concluded that COVID-19 most likely originated in animals.

A study led by the World Health Organization (WHO), published Tuesday, said it was “likely to very likely” that SARS-CoV-2 was introduced to humans from bats via another animal, with wildlife farming playing a crucial role.

Tong Yigang, a Chinese animal disease expert involved in the study, said it was good that China decided to ban trade in wildlife for human consumption, but farming wildlife animals for traditional Chinese medicine and the fur industry are still allowed. These farms can create situations where viruses can jump from animals to humans.

“With farms you have a large pool of animals that are more or less genetically homogeneous, where a virus can easily evolve,” said Christian Walzer, chief veterinarian at New York’s Wildlife Conservation Society.

For the study, thousands of animal samples were testes to trace the coronavirus’s origins, but the study said more investigations were required. It also recommended research at mink and raccoon dog farms, which China still allows even though they are infection-prone.

“Cramming millions of animals together in these abusive industries creates a perfect petri dish for pandemics, and unless we ban farming for fur, we will continue to play Russian roulette with global public safety,” warned Peter Li, China expert at Humane Society International.

Pangolins are still trafficked
Illegal wildlife trade continues till date, experts said. Pangolins, an endangered animal identified as a potential intermediary species for SARS-CoV-2, are still trafficked.

Animal rights activists complain that punishments are not severe: in a recent case, traffickers caught on the island province of Hainan were given only relatively small fines.

Foreign traffickers also remain in operation. A special economic zone in the border district of Mong La in Myanmar, owned by Chinese businesses, has long been a source of pangolin scales delivered into China.

“There’s no real government control there in Mong La,” said Chris Shepherd, executive director of the Monitor Conservation Research Society, who studies illegal wildlife trafficking. “There’s no enforcement of any kind.”

“In many places, wildlife trading isn’t seen as a priority or even as something that is necessarily wrong, and we are suffering a pandemic because of it,” Stepherd said.

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