The illegal trafficking of wildlife is a multibillion-dollar industry now recognized as a leading threat not only to biodiversity conservation, but also to public health. Evidence is mounting that diseases emerging from wildlife trade can have exorbitant public health and economic consequences. The 2003 SARS outbreak that infected thousands of people and caused billions of dollars of economic damage has been linked to wildlife sold in Chinese wildlife markets. The ongoing COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic, with a likely wild animal origin, is already having devastating economic and human health impacts globally.
The immense profitability of illegal wildlife trafficking has hindered decades of conservation-focused advocacy work. However, the negative public health and costly economic impacts of emerging diseases represent a compelling argument for governments to enforce existing laws and create new ones as needed to halt this destructive practice. Working with a wide range of partners, WCS health scientists are collecting data on diseases emerging from the global wildlife trade. In Vietnam, our research through the PREDICT project found that transmission risk for coronaviruses increases along wildlife supply chains for human consumption. Such vital information is needed to better characterize public health threats and help leverage political will to turn the tide against this ecologically devastating industry. In light of the recent emergence of SARS-CoV-2 from a likely wild animal host, many governments are working to strengthen their legislation against the consumption and trade of wild animals., to reduce the risk for future disease spillover events. WCS scientists are working to support these government partners in countries including China and Vietnam by sharing our knowledge around these risks. You can read our Vietnam Position Statement here.
Read more on our risk analyses of trade of bushmeat and other wildlife for human consumption in Southeast Asia:
Wildlife Trade and Human Health in Lao PDR: An Assessment of the Zoonotic Disease Risk in Markets
The WCS Health Program was a key partner of the global PREDICT project, funded by USAID, studying emerging zoonotic viruses such as coronaviruses, Ebola and Nipah where risky human behaviors, such as wildlife trade, hunting, trafficking, farming and consumption of wildlife, increase the likelihood of disease spillover events. Read more about our PREDICT work here.
WCS was also a key partner in the EU-funded LACANET project that researched the prevalence of diseases of local importance, such as typhus, anthrax, rabies, leptospirosis and trichinella, in wildlife in markets in Southeast Asia to better understand the risks and guide disease outbreak response and mitigation strategies.
In addition to studying the health implications of wildlife trade, the WCS Health Programs are working on molecular tools for genetic tracing to identify endangered species in trade and support wildlife trade enforcement:
Barcoding at the Border: On-the-go Genetic Test to Stop Illegal Wildlife Trafficking