Continued attempts to curb the sale of wild animals and their meat have failed to bring about changes in Asia-Pacific wet markets, even as the region struggles to contain the largest and deadliest wave of COVID-19 since of the onset of the pandemic.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly three-quarters of emerging infectious diseases that spread to humans originate in animals.
He SARS virus, for example, which killed 800 people between 2002 and 2004, is believed to have started in bats before spreading to civets in a wildlife market in the Chinese city of Foshan.
In April, after its research team in China concluded that the seafood market in Wuhan was the most likely route by which COVID-19 first jumped into humans, the WHO took the step unprecedented urging countries to stop selling wild mammals caught in wet markets as an emergency measure.
Animal welfare groups in Asia have been making the same demands for years, the unhealthy and cruel conditions where wild and domestic animals are kept in humid markets are the perfect breeding ground for zoonotic diseases.
Several Asian countries have passed new laws to curb the sale of “scrub meat” and limit activity to wet markets during the pandemic.
But almost all attempts to erase trade have been hampered by the continued popularity of shrub meat among some people in Asia, the great economic value of the sector and the lack of application.
Stopping trade “will be a difficult exercise,” said Li Shuo, Greenpeace’s global policy adviser in China.
Back, back off
Last July, a presidential decree was issued in Vietnam suspending all wildlife imports and introducing much harsher sanctions for offenders, including up to 15 years in prison.
But a survey conducted last month by PanNature, an NGO, found no positive changes in trade in wildlife products locally in Vietnam. It was found that the wet markets of the Mekong Delta and other parts of the country still sold endangered turtles, birds and wildlife species.
In Indonesia, the site of the worst outbreak of COVID-19 in Asia, with more than 2.5 million cases and at least 67,000 dead, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry has been trying to convince local officials to close wildlife markets across the country since the start of the pandemic. .
Officials in the city of Solo, in central Java, were some of those who took note and ordered the killing of hundreds of bats at Depok, one of the largest bird, dog and wildlife markets in the country. But the victory did not last long.
“They brutally exterminated hundreds of bats when COVID-19 first struck and stopped selling them,” said Lola Webber, coalition coordinator for the Dog Meat-Free Indonesia Coalition. “But from what I’ve heard from my sources, it’s normal now.”
Marison Guciano, founder of Flight, an NGO that protects the lives of Indonesian birds, confirms Webber’s claim. “I was there a week ago and they still openly sell bats, as well as snakes, rabbits, turtles, ferrets, beavers, cats, dogs, hamsters, hedgehogs, parrots, owls, crows and eagles.”
The same scenario is occurring in Indonesia’s wet markets.
On the occasion of World Zoonoses Day, last week, animal welfare group Four Paws released photos taken in June showing hundreds of bats, rats, dogs, snakes, birds and other animals for sale in three different markets in the province of North Sulawesi 2,000 km (1,243 miles) northeast of Solo.
History repeats itself
In April and May last year, a few months after the start of the pandemic, the global animal rights group PETA began visiting wet markets known for selling wildlife in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Philippines , Indonesia and China.
“We hoped that new rules and regulations would have been established, but we saw that it worked as usual, with all the different species in dirty cages, some alive, some dead, sometimes in the same cages,” says Nirali Shah, a spokesman for PETA Asia. “These environments are extremely frightening and stressful for animals, which weakens their immune system and makes them more vulnerable to diseases that can jump through species and then humans.
“In some markets, we saw animals taken from cages, dead on counters with blood of other species and workers who did not wear gloves, without any hygiene. This combination of risk factors is like a time bomb waiting for a new pandemic to begin, ”he says.
In China, where a total ban on wildlife trade and consumption was published in February last year as coronavirus increased in Wuhan, the situation has improved but only marginally, according to Shah.
“You can no longer see exotic wildlife for sale openly in China’s wet markets. But they still sell all kinds of birds in unhealthy conditions. And in many of these markets we found that if you want a certain animal, no matter what, sellers can get it despite the ban.
It is not the first time China has tried to end the scrub meat trade.
In 2002, wildlife markets closed due to SARS, but reopened later due to economic pressure. In 2016, the Chinese Academy of Engineers valued the country’s wildlife industry at $ 76 billion, with shrub meat accounting for $ 19 billion in activity each year and employing 6.3 millions of people in China.
In Malaysia, captured wildlife and bush meat were sometimes sold in wet markets before the pandemic. But it was more available through direct selling and restaurants.
In August last year, retired Inspector General of Police Abdul Hamid Bador gave the district police chiefs a month to make sure their areas were free of illegal restaurants they sold. scrub meat. Instructions were received in the wildlife department to assist police.
“Don’t tell me with 300 to 500 people in an area, can’t you spot the existence of illegal restaurants and bars selling exotic animals?” Abdul Hamid said at the time.
A series of high-profile wild meat confiscations were followed in markets, restaurants and private homes.
Elizabeth John, a spokeswoman for TRAFFIC, a Kuala Lumpur-based NGO that fights the illegal wildlife trade, says the raids are a sign of success and failure.
“By forming this joint working group between the police and wildlife officials, it is definitely a step in the right direction,” he said. “But the fact that we have seen seizures continue even during the pandemic shows that the warnings have not changed consumer attitudes. Despite the risks involved, the desire to eat wildlife is still there.”