This time poaching wildlife caused thousands of human victims and severely harmed the global economy. Next time it may cause the extermination of the entire human civilization.
The sustainable and respectful use of natural resources is not only wishful thinking of few unworldly, innocent, and naive naturalists but should rather be seen as a prerequisite for human survival. The way we treat nature and the way we use natural resources has a direct impact on our own well-being. The current threat imposed by the Covid-19-pandemic, also referred to as the Corona crisis, is dramatic but, unfortunately, not the only example of how the unlimited exploitation of wildlife is coming back to haunt us.
This virus, likely spawned by the human consumption of an illegally poached animal, will ultimately claim tens of thousands if not millions of lives, especially in the developing countries of Africa and Asia.
The origin of the virus causing the disease Covid-19 (or simply referred to as “corona“) is not completely understood yet, but scientists see strong evidence that the virus, scientifically referred to as SARS-CoV-2, jumped to humans from bats hunted illegally and sold as delicacies at the so-called wet-markets in Asia. These markets are the ideal pathogen-hatcheries and from there the virus could easily start its deadly journey around the world via infected humans.
But bats are unlikely to be the original hosts of this or other pathogens, but serve only as the ideal carriers over to humans from other animals living in the wild, and poaching and keeping or consuming those constitute as much or an even bigger threat, as many other examples have shown in the past. And though we believe Covid19 case-zero was infected by a bat is by no means proven but only a very plausible scenario.
The current Covid19-drama might sound like a déjà-vu. In fact, a few years ago, in 2002, the world population was threatened by another coronavirus: the SARS-CoV. Similar to the current threat caused by SARS-CoV-2, the SARS-CoV was transmitted to humans from poached civets (small, racoon-like mammals), which were sold as delicacies at Asian food markets. Reuters – Chinese scientists say SARS-civet cat link proven.
Sadly, there are many examples of viruses that have followed this same path from animal consumption to humanity: the swine-influenza viruses (causing swine flu) and the avian-influenza viruses (causing bird flu). Both swine and bird influenza viruses were transferred to humans and resulted in numerous deaths. Indisputably, however, the most dramatic virus that spread from wild animals to humans was the human immunodeficiency virus-group (HIV) that caused AIDS. Since its first occurrence in humans, the AIDS-pandemic has caused more than 25 million deaths. As scientists have learned, HIV was transmitted to humans from asymptomatic monkeys, originating possibly from chimpanzees, hunted for food in the area of Kinshasa around the 1920’s. Origins of HIV and the AIDS Pandemic.
How does this happen?
Poachers worldwide sell exotic animals, obtained illegally, to large commercial industries (furriers, leather-good suppliers, and multiple other businesses), but it doesn’t stop there. They often sell locally to people for consumption as food.
If we are going to survive on this planet, it is essential that humans learn the definition of zoonotic disease. Simply stated, zoonotic refers to diseases that can be transmitted from infected but usually asymptomatic animals to people.
When it happens, for whatever reasons: sheer hunger of the poor; a status symbol for the wealthy; or simply cultural or medical beliefs, they can become infected with a virus carried by the animal, such as HIV, Ebola, Leprosy, SARS, MERS, COVID19, just to cite a few. Most animals carry some viruses. Very few infect humans. Even fewer can be transmitted from human-to-human, and even less can cause dangerous disease. But with estimated millions different viruses in existence, one thing is surely guaranteed, Covid19 will not be the last or even the worst of such viruses transmitted to humans. From the seemingly humble act of feeding one’s family – a pandemic like COVID19 can be unleashed upon the world. It evolves into a pandemic because the human body has no immune defense for the non-human, animal virus. Every one of the aforementioned diseases began in just this way. These diseases have demonstrated just another reason why the poaching of wild animals threatens the survival of the human species on our planet.
Tragically, however, we don’t seem to learn from the history of our mistakes. How many pandemics, caused by diseases transmitted from poached animals, must we survive to stop this from happening again? Will we survive the next one, which will definitely occur if poaching continues?
A solution with tremendous potential
One way to allow the consumption of typically wild animals, of course, is the controlled breeding of animals—animals that would otherwise be taken from the wild. Trying to prohibit consumption of certain animals, bred for the purpose of consumption by cultures who have done this for hundreds or thousands of years, will not stop them from consuming those animals. In fact, it may actually have the opposite effect.
By using sophisticated breeding methods and technologies, it is possible to guarantee the welfare of the individual animal (good living conditions, good health conditions), the biodiversity of the captive, the welfare of the wild populations (certified breeding stocks, which make poaching riskier and less profitable), and the welfare of humans (by preventing zoonotic spillovers). For species that will be consumed anyway, despite prohibitions, captive breeding in combination with severe penalties for poaching may well be the only solution: Once the safety of breeding can be ensured and state-measures truly decrease the incentive for illegal trading, biodiversity protection and food-safety may actually be far better served than they are now.
To save ourselves from disasters like the current one (or worse), we need to become more creative about solutions to reduce illegal wildlife trade. In many cultures, we simply will not stop the consumption of wildlife species, such as for example turtles. Some African countries even promote the breeding and consumption of game as a solution to famine among their indigenous local peoples. These countries, too, are already taking steps to register their wild populations (elephant populations in Africa being only the beginning), which will eventually also allow the distinction between bred and poached specimens. They are far away from having the logistics to do this, though, and current technology would allow this for a very few select species only. But it may be the way to go in many countries and with many species.
We must, however, ensure that breeding and trading are legal and are governed by the same public health-inspection regulations that apply to domestic animals. The problem, of course, is that poaching is often cheaper than breeding, so breeders sometimes mix poached animals into their populations and then market this mixed group as “exclusively bred in captivity.” This is the behavior that must cease and desist–not necessarily the consumption of species, which though “wild,” have been bred under controlled conditions. To make the distinction between a truly legal animal, that is to say one that has been bred in captivity from legal breeding stock, and one that has been poached into the population, genetics is required. When profits from poaching decrease, or customers of poachers are bound into systems that imposes too much risk to purchase poached animals, poaching and with it the potential for zoonotic disease also decreases. This constitutes the beginning of an answer.
So, what can society do to transform the beginning of an answer into a solution? There are already many successful conservation and commercial breeding programs around the world for multiple species, but collaboration between these two types of breeders needs to be fostered to retain genetically viable populations of captive breeding stock. There is little need to create more breeding facilities; however, changing current breeding facilities to operate in a guaranteed, tamper/poach-free mode is mandatory. Every animal residing in, entering, or leaving such a facility should be registered by a tamperproof method to make the introduction, of poached specimens into logistics chains, traceable and prohibitively dangerous and expensive.
A novel technological development may be just the solution
Precisely this economic and tamperproof method to enforce these laws for the countless species in question is not yet commercially available today and thus all the above concepts are not yet enforceable. Currently, these animals are not formally documented by a method that would distinguish a legal wild animal, bred in captivity, from an illegally poached animal. Laws have been articulated and penalties defined for the poaching of wild animals. Undoubtedly, after this disaster, many more regulations will emerge, indeed, up to the point of prohibiting all wildlife trades, which may, as heretofore mentioned above, may produce the inverse effect.
Now, through the development of a program at Ark-Biodiversity – a program originally designed to provide Western law enforcement with the methods to stop illegal animal trades at ports of entry and to curb any illegal breeding, a technological leap has been made. It is a unique technology that can create a genetic fingerprint for specimens of every species (see ark-biodiversity.com). This technology, which was initially targeted to the authorities, can be employed by both commercial and conservation breeders around the world to “legalize” their breeding stock by genetically fingerprinting and registering their populations.
If all legally bred and traded animals are genetically catalogued; and all law enforcement concerned with that breeders have easy access to this information, those agencies could distinguish unambiguously between animals, legally bred in captivity, and animals, poached from the wild or otherwise illicitly introduced into logistics and delivery chains. Innumerable species and specimens worldwide could be “typed” and registered, removing the enigma and danger that faces consumers worldwide: Is this a wild animal population, captive-bred and healthy, or is this a population that poses a threat to human life?
Wherever they exist, current blanket prohibitions on breeding, trade, and consumption have been difficult to enforce. This technological breakthrough not only would be more effective in curbing poaching (including enforcing blanket bans where legally proscribed) but is capable of creating a forgery-proof trading system for all future breeding.
Fingerprinting animals is tantamount to a “eal of approval.” Thus, conservation genetics can now provide powerful tools to detect, stop and finally prevent the uncontrolled plundering of nature that not only destroys global biodiversity, but can potentially destroy human civilization as well.