Stop the Wildlife Trade: Founder of leading animal welfare charity backs The Independent's campaign

All recent pandemics had their roots in wildlife trade, says Dr Jill Robinson

Arjun Neil Alim
Sunday 17 May 2020 12:13 BST
The WHO and governments globally are facing pleas to halt the sale of animals in unhygienic conditions and wildlife trade

The founder of one of the most prominent global wildlife charities, has expressed her “100 per cent support” for The Independent’s campaign to ban the wildlife trade, and said that only the closure of live animal markets worldwide will reduce the risk of disease.

Speaking to The Independent, Dr Jill Robinson MBE, whose organisation Animals Asia Foundation campaigns on animal welfare, called live animal markets “dirty, dangerous places” that cannot be properly regulated, especially in countries where “no animal welfare regulations exist, or are poorly enforced if they do”.

On 4 March, the Chinese government published a list of recommended remedies for Covid-19, which included bear bile. Animals Asia campaigns to end the bear bile trade, and runs two bear sanctuaries in China and Vietnam where they rehouse abused animals from bile farms.

Dr Robinson founded the organisation in 1998 after a visit to a bear bile farm in Guangdong, China. They have now rescued 632 bears in total and run an international public information campaign on the danger of wildlife trafficking and abuse.

Bear bile has been in use in Chinese traditional medicine for centuries. The active ingredient, ursodeoxycholic acid, is often used to treat liver diseases. It is available across the world as a synthetic drug.

In their statement on coronavirus published in March, Animals Asia stated that “we shouldn't be relying on wildlife products like bear bile as the solution to combat a deadly virus that appears to have originated from wildlife”.

The coronavirus emerged in Wuhan, China in late 2019. A study published in medical journal, The Lancet, found that 27 of the initial 41 people who became infected with the coronavirus in the city had been exposed to Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market. However in the earliest case, the patient had no reported contact with the market and in total 13 of the 41 cases had no link to it.

Dr Jill Robinson is founder of the Animal Asia Foundation
Dr Jill Robinson is founder of the Animal Asia Foundation (Animals Asia)

Although there are conflicting theories as to Covid-19’s source, researchers agree that the virus made the jump from an animal to a human in a “zoonotic spillover” event.

Dr Robinson said: “We urgently support the humane and responsible alternatives to bear bile that will prevent the ongoing exploitation and utilisation of both captive and wild caught bears, and continue to offer help and resources for the bears themselves when the farms close.”

“With so many herbal and synthetic alternatives now available to replace bear bile we believe that the time has come to be more proactive in protecting all bear species across Asia.”

They also express their hope that recent restrictions, such as those against the consumption of cats and dogs in the Chinese cities of Shenzhen and Zhuhai, will expand to include protections for bears.

Bears are caged before having their bile drained at a farm in China
Bears are caged before having their bile drained at a farm in China (Getty)

Dr Robinson is proud of how Animals Asia has responded to the coronavirus challenge. During the strict lockdown of Hubei province, the organisation worked with local groups to deliver food for cats and dogs in Wuhan.

“This has been a testing time for all NGOs of course and Animals Asia is no different”, adds Dr Robinson. “We continue to put out appeals to help with the day to day operation of our sanctuaries, as well as towards rescuing more bears from bile farms in Vietnam.”

In a blog post from April, Dr Robinson condemned the trade of wild animals, writing: “From Sars to Covid-19, from Ebola to Mers, to HIV – the global wildlife trade has its roots in every one of these infections and the whole world must take responsibility for the tragic consequences we are seeing today.”

She goes on to describe the live markets visited by her and her team, like those in Indonesia on which The Independent reported last month. “Breathing in the dust baked bacteria emerging from every cage stacked high of miserable species within.

“This melting pot of disease sees the worst abuse of wild, domestic and endangered species as row upon row of sick and dying animals stare miserably out from chicken wire and bars, shedding the consequential diseases of their stress and cruel treatment.”

When asked about The Independent’s #BanWildlifeTrade campaign, she responds that she is “in 100 per cent support”.

She continues: “This is clearly a responsible way to look to the future with increased confidence that emerging viruses will have less places to multiply, which is surely what the world is looking for in reducing the risk of disease.”

Neither is she naive about the economic cost of disrupting what is, in China alone, a $74bn (£61bn) industry. She urges compensation for farmers and investment in re-training, before concluding that these costs “pale into insignificance compared with the tragic loss of so many lives and the estimated trillions that Covid-19 will cost”.

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