Coronavirus: Hundreds of conservation experts join forces to pressure WHO to force live animal markets to close

‘We need to reset our fundamental relationship with the natural world, and rethink our place in it,’ says expert

The WHO and governments globally are facing pleas to halt the sale of animals in unhygienic conditions and wildlife trade

The World Health Organisation (WHO) is coming under some of the greatest pressure it has experienced in its 72-year history – to force the closure of live animal markets to prevent future pandemics.

More than 200 conservation groups across the world have signed an open letter calling on the organisation to do all it can to prevent new diseases emerging from wildlife trade and spreading into global pandemics.

Scientists say the evidence points to Covid-19 originating from animals – most likely bats – in “wet” markets where live and dead creatures, from dogs and hares to turtles, are sold as food and slaughtered on demand.

Previous epidemics, including severe acute respiratory syndrome, which killed nearly 800 people in 2002-3, and Ebola, which has killed at least 11,300 people, have also been linked to viruses caused by hunting bush meat or other wildlife consumption.

Ever since evidence of the Covid-19 link to Wuhan’s wet markets was revealed earlier this year, experts worldwide have called for such places to be shut down because of the risk of starting dangerous diseases.

The new joint letter calls on the WHO to recommend to governments worldwide that they bring in permanent bans on live wildlife markets and close down or limit trade in wildlife to reduce the threat to human health.

In February, the Chinese government temporarily banned such markets, although there is evidence some sellers have started up again or are dealing online.

The experts also want the use of wildlife, including from captive-bred animals, to be “unequivocally” excluded from the organisation’s definition and endorsement of traditional medicine. Last year the WHO added traditional Chinese medicine, which uses animal body parts, to its influential global compendium.

Conservationists say the WHO should work with governments and international bodies such as the World Trade Organisation to raise awareness of the risks the wildlife trade poses to human health and society.

It should also support and encourage initiatives that deliver alternative sources of protein to people who survive on eating wild animals.

The letter, coordinated by wildlife charity Born Free and its Lion Coalition partners, is backed by organisations including the Bat Conservation Trust, International Fund for Animal Welfare and the Zoological Society of London.

At the same time, world leaders are receiving a science-based white paper from Humane Society International, warning that Covid-19 is “a tipping point that governments globally must not ignore” and asking governments to help the traders involved to find new livelihoods as quickly as possible.

Without action, “the emergence of another coronavirus-based disease in the future is a practical certainty”, the paper says.

In the UK, the paper is being sent to foreign secretary – and effective deputy prime minister – Dominic Raab, health secretary Matt Hancock and environment secretary George Eustice.

The United Nations’ biodiversity chief has also added her weight to demands for a global ban on wildlife markets. Elizabeth Maruma Mrema said the change could prevent new pandemic diseases from spreading.

“The message we are getting is if we don’t take care of nature, it will take care of us,” she told The Guardian, but cautioned poor commmunities would need support to prevent them trading illegally and driving species extinctions.

Markets selling live animals – both captured from the wild and bred in captivity – are popular in southeast Asia but also exist in Africa and South America.

The Chinese government encouraged them to expand and become more commercial during the 1980s.

Mark Jones, the head of policy at Born Free, said the trade in wild animals was not only bad for the welfare of millions of individual animals but was also a major factor in global declines in wildlife.

“We need to dig deep and reset our fundamental relationship with the natural world, rethink our place in it and treat our planet and all its inhabitants with a great deal more respect, for its sake and for ours,” he said.

A global response to curb wildlife trade is clearly needed to prevent further human health crises

Mark Jones

“Once Covid-19 is hopefully behind us, returning to business as usual cannot be an option.”

Separate research by wildlife charity WWF has found high levels of public support in Asia for closing illegal and unregulated wildlife markets and the wildlife trade.

The survey, conducted in Hong Kong, Japan, Burma, Thailand and Vietnam, found 93 per cent of people supported eliminating illegal and unregulated markets.

Influential organisations including the RSPCA, Humane Society International, Peta, the US-based Wildlife Conservation Society, World Animal Protection and Four Paws International have all spoken out against wildlife trading since the Covid-19 pandemic began.

Even before China’s temporary ban, some of the country’s own researchers called for a crackdown.

Dr Jones added: “The World Health Organization has a mandate to promote human health, keep the world safe, and protect the vulnerable.

“We are asking the WHO to advise governments to permanently close down wildlife markets, and to curb the commercial trade in wild animals for food, traditional medicines and the myriad of other uses for which wildlife is exploited.

“A global response to curb wildlife trade is clearly needed to prevent further human health crises, and to reverse the unprecedented decline in the natural world.”

The Independent, which is running a campaign against the wildlife trade, has asked the WHO whether it is considering making any recommendations to world governments.

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