Interview: COVID-19 “unfortunate opportunity” to rethink wildlife trade: CITES head

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GENEVA, July 13 (Xinhua) — The COVID-19 pandemic is an “unfortunate opportunity” to rethink the policies and regulations in wildlife trades, as well as humans’ relationship with nature, said Ivonne Higuero, secretary-general of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), in a recent interview with Xinhua.

Higuero called for a “multi-sectoral approach” to better regulate wildlife trade and reduce the risk of zoonoses — diseases or infections that are transmissible from animals to humans.

WILDLIFE TRADE & ZOONOSES

According to a study published on Nature magazine, some 60 percent of emerging infectious diseases reported globally are zoonoses. Over 30 new human pathogens have been detected in the last three decades, 75 percent of which originated in animals.

The coronaviruses that caused Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) are thought to be zoonotic viruses that have originated in bats and transmitted to humans through civet cats and camels.

Although the origin of the COVID-19 has not yet identified, all available evidence for COVID-19 suggests that the virus has a zoonotic source, according to the World Health Organization.

The transmission of the viruses can happen at multiple stages of interaction between humans and animals, from farming, hunting, and fishing to the trade of specimens, their transport, processing, or storage.

Through international wildlife trade, pathogens carried by animals could be introduced to new environments.

Since the outset of the pandemic, wildlife trade has drawn public attention. “We will never be able to eliminate them completely as long as we live side by side with animals,” said Higuero, “but we can reduce the risks.”

An important step is to follow the framework provided by the CITES, she said.

CITES is the regulatory instrument for international wildlife trade. It protects more than 30,000 species of wild plants and around 6,000 species of wild animals against over-exploitation.

RETHINK HUMANS’ RELATIONSHIP WITH NATURE

Wildlife trafficking is one of the most lucrative illicit trade worldwide. Compared with the wildlife trade that is fully regulated, illegal wildlife trade has a greater risk of introducing zoonoses.

The World Wildlife Crime Report 2020 published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime notes that pangolins, which were identified as a potential source of coronaviruses, are the most trafficked wild mammals in the world, with seizures of pangolin scales having increased tenfold between 2014 and 2018.

Facing a common threat of zoonotic diseases, Higuero underscored that the attention should not only be paid to the marketplace and consumption of wildlife, but more importantly, to “how we treat nature.”

“The extension of agricultural land, conversion of land for agriculture for deforestation, urbanization… development of infrastructure, construction of highways, all of these things are really having a huge impact for nature and all, and again, destroying ecosystems, having an impact on wildlife habitats,” she said.

Overexploitation of species has an impact on “propagating the zoonotic diseases” because humans “keep encroaching into wildlife areas” and are becoming closer to some “risky species” and the pathogens they carried.

MULTI-SECTORIAL APPROACH VITAL

Higuero stressed that reducing the risk of zoonotic diseases entails a multi-sectoral approach.

“It’s about trade; it’s about wildlife management; it’s about health management; it’s about regulations inspectors,” she said.

She pointed out that a quicker way is to work together with actors from different sectors, countries, and organizations. For example, CITES’ Wildlife management authorities are working with veterinarians and public health authorities to develop guidance that can be brought to the national level.

CITES is also working with The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) to support the exchange of electronic “eCITES” permit, which aims to strengthen the control measures on the international wildlife trade between 183 parties of CITES.

According to Higuero, the system can be integrated with other biosecurity measures under the current pandemic, to ensure that the project has not only the approval form CITES but also from veterinarians. Enditem

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