“We found no, or very few, people addressing the links between COVID-19 and the wildlife trade.”
The online wildlife trade carries the risk of another pandemic
The illegal wildlife trade is posing an existential risk to numerous endangered animals and not even the ongoing pandemic has slowed its rate.
That is because even though several thriving wildlife markets were closed down earlier in the year in countries like China and Vietnam as the pandemic got underway worldwide, much of the illicit trade in protected species has simply moved online, say researchers from the University of Western Australia and Oxford Brookes University.
“When comparing the data we had collected prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, during the arrival of COVID-19 and when it had firmly arrived in the countries we studied (Indonesia and Brazil), we noted that the traders advertising animals and their (potential) customers continued in a business as usual manner,” explains Vincent Nijman, a professor of anthropology at Oxford Brookes University who was the author of a new study on an aspect of the illicit wildlife trade.
“We found no, or very few, people addressing the links between COVID-19 and the wildlife trade, and if they did it was done in a manner that we did not expect,” Nijman told the Treehugger website. “That is, they used COVID-19, the travel restrictions, the lockdowns, as a way to promote the trade in wild-caught pets: ‘buy your animal now before lockdown,’ ‘monkeys are good lockdown friends,’ ‘despite covid we still deliver,’ etc.”
And that should be disconcerting as COVID-19 may well have emerged originally in wildlife populations, likely bats, and a continuing trade in wild animals carries the risk of yet another pandemic, Nijman and his colleagues stress.
“The links between wildlife trade and infectious diseases are very concerning. However, what we find is that purely focusing on the risk of transmission as justification for widespread bans may not be effective on the ground,” explains Kim Feddema, a PhD student at the University of Western Australia who was another author of the study.
To gauge the extent of the online wildlife trade and how fears of COVID-19 have factored into it, the researchers examined advertisements posted on Facebook in Brazil and Indonesia, two countries with rich indigenous wildlife and a rampant trade in them.
They discovered that some 20,000 posts offered wild animals for sale on the social media platform. Yet, based on some 100,000 comments on all those posts, neither the traders nor their prospective buyers seemed much concerned about the potential spread of infectious diseases like the novel coronavirus through the sale of wild animals.
“Only 0.44 per cent of the more than 20,000 online wildlife trade advertisements had any COVID-19-related content and those that mentioned COVID-19 often stimulated wildlife trade, with sellers suggesting the pandemic was a great time to buy an exotic pet for companionship,” the Australian university observes in a statement on the findings.
The solution lies in increased monitoring of social media platforms to put a stop “not only to extinctions but the increased risk of further pandemics,” Feddema says.