Call for better regulation amid outbreak

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The novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) outbreak in China has had some unintended consequences. The Chinese government revealed its plans to shut down all illegal wildlife markets and better regulate legal markets, a call welcomed by the rest of the world.

This came as the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention tested 585 animal samples from the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, and 33 contained the coronavirus. At the time of going to print, investigations were still underway to determine the species that are involved.

Crocodiles wrapped in plastic, ready to be sold at a market in China. Photo: Maria Pisareva

Coronaviruses circulate naturally among animals, but some can affect people. A few years ago another form of coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, originated in a wildlife market in China’s Guangdong province. That time, masked palm civets were the culprit, but bats were the original source.

Many Middle Eastern nationals are known consumers of wildlife products, which include pangolin meat. Trade in this species is not allowed, but the meat is sold as a delicacy at illegal markets. Restricted species end up in places like China through poaching and illicit trade. In 2019, two seizures in Singapore amounted to the confiscation of 26 tons of pangolin scales, probably destined for use in traditional medicine.

Some of the items for sale at a market in China. Photo: Ré Stewart

Scorpions at a market in China. Photo: Maria Pisareva

Annie DuPre-Reynolds, Wildlife in Trade programme manager at the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), says illegal wildlife trade is estimated to be the fourth most-lucrative form of organised crime in the world. “Syndicates will move wildlife products through different ports and airports to avoid detection. This contributes to the challenges faced by organisations, such as the EWT, working to combat illegal trade as it impacts the survival of wildlife. This is why we advocate for a permanent ban on illegal wildlife markets and enhanced regulation of existing markets,” DuPre-Reynolds says.

A website for a market in Wuhan, the province where coronavirus was thought to have originated, shows the extent of wildlife consumption in China. The website has since been taken down, but a search into the archives shows animals such as crocodile, scorpion, squirrel, donkey, civet, python and ostrich on
the menu.

Markets in China is often on the side of the road. Photo: Maria Pisareva

The menu doesn’t list the source of the products. “This is why regulation is so important – to know where species originate and to regulate them according to international and domestic laws,”says DuPre-Reynolds. Legal trade in wildlife is regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) of Wild Flora and Fauna. Both South Africa and China adhere to CITES.

There are many reasons why wildlife products are used. “A wildlife product may be used for traditional medicine, or to indicate social status, or for another reason,” says DuPre-Reynolds. “In the case of rhino horn, which has no proven medicinal properties, there is evidence of its use for over 2 000 years in China. Uses also evolve over time, and not all traditional medicine is actually traditional, but may be more modern
or popular.”

Interesting items for sale at a market in China. Photo: Ré Stewart

Items sold illegally in China and elsewhere include rhino horn, elephant ivory, pangolin, lion bones, exotic birds and reptiles, and abalone. DuPre-Reynolds says that abalone can fetch R10 000 per kg.

 

Written by René de Klerk
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