Following Sunday night’s BBC One screening of Extinction: The Facts, introduced by Sir David Attenborough, many of us have been left feeling anxious and in some cases; downright scared, of how on Earth we go about reducing the unthinkable damage of species extinction, which seems to be taking place all around us.
It’s a situation that has kept many conservationists up at night year after year, as we watch the red line of the current rate of extinction rise and rise — taking with it hundreds of millions of years of evolution; generations of unique and beautiful characteristics; personalities, relationships, incredible life stories; and irreplaceable ecological fragments of already fragile wild environments.
And to make a dire situation even more anxiety-inducing; human exploitation of wildlife and wild spaces leaves us under threat of devastating zoonotic diseases — as Covid-19 has already shown us.
So, where can we find hope? The long answer of course lies in a complex entanglement of theories and actions that we barely have the time to discuss before the next critically endangered species adds to the ascending red line.
The short answer: by reacting; immediately.
This past week the Global Initiative to End Wildlife Crime (EWC) outlined an innovative ‘One Health’ approach to reforming wildlife trade laws that the group said would eliminate threats to human health by avoiding future devastating wildlife-related pandemics, while helping to stop the decline of ecosystems and reverse the extinction crisis facing wild animals and plants.
Public health and animal health must be held in higher regard when it comes to wildlife trade laws
In a briefing paper released on 7th September, End Wildlife Crime (EWC) proposes specific amendments to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to include public health and animal health criteria into the Convention’s decision-making processes.
CITES is in an international agreement that aims to ensure the international trade in animals and plants does not threaten their survival — but, currently, it does not apply to domestic crimes such as poaching and illegal logging. That means that plants and animals not covered by CITES that are illegally harvested in their country of origin, can for the most part be legally imported and traded by other countries.
“No organisation on its own can address the multiple threats that could lead to the emergence of new wildlife-related diseases, or the spread of older diseases, with potential catastrophic consequences for economies, people and wildlife,” said EWC chair, John E Scanlon AO.
Scanlon, who formerly held the position of Secretary-General of CITES for eight years, had called for a new protocol under the UN Convention against Transnational Organised Crime (UNCTOC) to specifically cover wildlife crime back in March, prior to the country’s lockdown.
He added: “we must take a collaborative global approach to wildlife trade, one that brings together animal, human and environmental health – a “One Health” approach – and embed it into the international legal framework if we want give ourselves the best chance of averting future wildlife-related pandemics.”
“We know that past pandemics, such as Ebola, SARS and MERS, have been caused by wildlife-related zoonotic diseases and we now understand the conditions that make spillover from animals to humans more likely,” said Lisa Genasci, CEO of the ADM Capital Foundation (ADMCF).
Despite this, current wildlife trade laws do not take into account public or animal health considerations. Amending these laws to include public and animal health criteria is an objective of EWC and the briefing paper details specific changes that could be made to the CITES Convention.
Protecting wildlife and controlling future pandemics
The most likely explanation for COVID-19 is that the virus was transmitted to humans from a reservoir host, a horseshoe bat, via another intermediate host species such as a pangolin.
“The COVID-19 crisis has brought home just how vulnerable we all are as a result of our dysfunctional and destructive relationship with wildlife and the natural world,” said EWC Steering Group member, Will Travers, OBE, Co-founder and Executive President of Born Free Foundation.
“Transformative changes are clearly needed, and CITES, the global wildlife trade regulator with its 183 member countries, existing structures and compliance mechanisms, has the critical mass to play a vitally important role.”
There is growing political will within countries to address the root causes behind COVID-19 and reduce the risk of future zoonotic disease outbreaks.
“We are seeing that policymakers around the world are becoming increasingly concerned about the nexus between conservation and public health,” said Susan Lylis, Executive Vice President of International Conservation Caucus Foundation (ICCF), “and they are motivated to find solutions to prevent future pandemics”.
How can CITES incorporate public health into wildlife trade laws?
CITES currently regulates international trade in live wildlife and wildlife products to ensure that trade is legal and sustainable.
EWC proposes new legally binding provisions, including a new Appendix, or list of species, to regulate wildlife trade that poses a threat to public health or animal health.
These provisions will only allow trade after certain findings are made, including that the proposed trade is reviewed by public and animal health authorities and is found to not pose a significant risk to human or animal health. Proposed trade that does not meet these requirements will be prohibited.
“CITES is the only legally binding international framework that fits this critical need,” said Craig Hoover, Executive Vice President of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and Special Advisor to EWC on CITES.
“By adding a new Article and Appendix to the treaty that lays out specific requirements and restrictions on the capture, transport, and trade of wildlife species that pose a risk to public or animal health, we can leverage a globally recognized and enforceable agreement to avert future pandemics.”
According to the EWC paper, to prevent the next wildlife-related pandemic, we must expand efforts to end illegal wildlife trade; and where wildlife trade threatens human and animal health, stop such trade, close wildlife markets and stem consumption.
To achieve this, the world could move swiftly to amend CITES to include a broader health-related mandate and increase collaboration with WHO, OIE and FAO.
“The world, its wildlife, its people, and its economy may depend on it”, Scanlon said.
Learn more about CITES and the illegal wildlife trade
- End Wildlife Crime: New initiative presented at the House of Lords calls for an International Agreement
- Inside the Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference 2018
- Hear my chat with UN Ambassador Aidan Gallagher at the Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference 2018
- Remembering elephants at CITES 2016
- Cecil the lion’s legacy at CITES 2016
- Rhino horn trade debate ahead of CITES 2016