Educational Series: Cruel Wet Markets Have Devastated Wildlife and Caused the COVID-19 Pandemic

As the deadly effects of the COVID-19 virus have spread around the world, awareness of the Chinese “wet markets” thought to be responsible for introducing the virus to humans has also spread. In some of these markets, wild animals like pangolins and bats are sold for their meat and body parts after having endured agonizing treatment at the hands of poachers and illegal sellers. Ending the sale of wildlife at wet markets is an imperative not only for protecting human health, but for preserving countless endangered species from extinction.

Unfortunately, there is also plenty of misinformation about wet markets out there–so not everything you may have heard concerning them is necessarily accurate. It is absolutely true that some wet markets are sources of deadly human health risks and unspeakable animal cruelty. They are also a threat to Earth’s biodiversity, as endangered and vulnerable wild animal species are routinely sold for consumption. However, there are many different kinds of wet markets, and a large percentage of people in the U.S.–even some government officials–remain confused about what the term actually means.

In the broadest sense, “wet market” is simply a name for outdoor markets in countries like China that sell fresh produce such as fruits, vegetables, and meat. Many wet markets are not so very different from the farmers markets that thousands of people in the United States and other countries enjoy every summer. Some wet markets don’t sell any wild animal meat at all, and are an important source of safe, healthy food for millions of people in China. The real problem lies with a subset of wet markets that sell wild meat–often illegally–alongside more conventional produce. These “wildlife markets” are the true source of the many ills attributed to wet markets, but in the U.S. the terms wet market and wildlife market are often used interchangeably. It is important to understand that in reality, the majority of wet markets pose no threat to human health or endangered animals.

That said, the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, where the COVID-19 virus is thought to have originated, is one of those wet markets where wild animals have indeed been routinely sold and killed. Species offered for sale–either dead or alive–in places like this include foxes, badgers, bamboo rats, civets, pangolins and many more. In some cases, live animals are kept in squalid and inhumane cages, only to be ruthlessly slaughtered in front of customers who want “fresh” meat. Confined to tiny spaces and often standing in their own urine and feces, these terrified animals are kept in close proximity to each other, creating an ideal environment for the spread of disease from one animal to another–and ultimately to people who handle them.

The available evidence suggests that COVID-19 is a virus that naturally infects bats. While bats are sometimes sold in wildlife markets, it does not appear that the virus jumped directly from a bat to a person. Rather, COVID-19 is believed to have somehow been transferred to another animal like a civet (a cat-like wild animal), and then to its first human host. Once it entered the human population, it spread rapidly around the world.

One of the ironies of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it was an entirely preventable tragedy. The disease risks associated with wildlife markets have long been known–and in fact, several other well-known viruses are thought to have come originally from contact with wild animals in these types of artificial environments. They include such notorious disease agents as the HIV, Ebola, and avian flu viruses. If the world had gotten serious about eliminating wildlife markets years ago, the COVID-19 pandemic would likely never have happened.

In the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, China has enacted a temporary ban on the sale of wild animals for food–but while this should be a welcome development, it is only a first step toward addressing the country’s wildlife trade. Conservation and animal rights groups are calling for a permanent ban that would end the sale of wild animals or their meat once and for all. Even if such a law is eventually enacted, however, that won’t be the end of the story. For one thing, the sale of many animals found in wildlife markets is already illegal; but without adequate enforcement and a crackdown on the black market, such bans do little good. Poachers and wild animal meat sellers have become adept at keeping their trade out of the public eye, making the task of eliminating them very difficult.

There will also be pushback against any permanent ban from the wildlife trade industry itself, which is a powerful political force in China. Just as the animal agriculture lobby in the U.S. has stymied efforts to end cruel practices like factory farming, China’s wildlife industry has foiled plans to end the dangerous wildlife trade before. In the early 2000s, the Chinese government temporarily restricted wildlife markets in response to the SARS virus–another disease believed to have originated from the wild animal trade. Once the immediate threat from the virus subsided, though, the trade was allowed to resume. It remains to be seen whether the same thing will happen after the COVID-19 pandemic.

While consuming certain endangered species is already technically illegal, the trade in other wild animals was completely lawful in China before the imposition of the temporary ban. Civet farms, for example, are a major industry and a source of severe animal cruelty. Farmed civets are routinely kept in small, cramped cages without the ability to exercise or practice natural behaviors. One purpose of such farms is to make Kopi Luwak, an expensive coffee product prepared from beans that have been partially digested by civets–this coffee is literally made from civet poop. Given the fact that it may have been a civet which originally transmitted COVID-19 to humans, eliminating civet farming would be an obvious place to start as the world tries to reduce the risk of new virus outbreaks. However, doing so will require overcoming the opposition of the powerful Kopi Luwak industry.

Another problem is that even the current temporary ban on China’s wildlife trade doesn’t cover all uses of wild animals. It applies mainly to animals consumed for food, and contains an exception for traditional medicine. Animal parts from bear gall bladders to pangolin scales are promoted as “cures” for various ailments in China, despite no scientific evidence that they have any real medicinal properties–with devastating results for endangered species. In order to truly be effective, a permanent ban on the wildlife trade must extend to medicine as well as food.

While China has borne the brunt of the blame for wildlife markets like the one that introduced COVID-19, it’s also important to realize that these markets and other epicenters of the cruel wildlife trade exist in other countries as well. Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam are all home to markets similar to the ones that exist in China–nor is the U.S. blameless. Indeed, the wildlife trade has increasingly gone online, and U.S. consumers buy products like Kopi Luwak that keep the brutal industry alive.

Ending the cruelty of wildlife markets and the threats they pose to human health will require a concerted effort on the part of all countries involved in the wild animal trade–including consumer countries like the U.S. However, with the world waking up to the harm they cause, there is now a real chance we could end wildlife markets once and for all. There is already progress; in addition to China at least beginning to shut down some wildlife markets, the government of Vietnam has taken steps to curb the wild animal trade. Ending wildlife markets will not make up for all the tragic, preventable suffering already caused by COVID-19, but it would be a welcome sign that we humans are finally beginning to learn from our mistakes and improve our relationship with wild animals.

Photo credit: Black Paerl

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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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