Wild animals and COVID-19 – What can we learn for better health of nature and humanity?

“The message we are getting is if we don’t take care of nature, it will take care of us.” - Elizabeth Mruma Mrema, Acting Executive Secretary, UN Convention on Biological Diversity As the number of people affected by the Covid-19 outbreak...

“The message we are getting is if we don’t take care of nature, it will take care of us.”

– Elizabeth Mruma Mrema, Acting Executive Secretary, UN Convention on Biological Diversity

As the number of people affected by the Covid-19 outbreak is soaring and given the rapidly emerging body of scientific evidence suggesting that COVID-19 is most likely, to have a zoonotic origin, trade and consumption of wild animals and their impact on human health are becoming an urgent and critical policy agenda in China, and globally. We need immediate and resolute actions – by policymakers, from the business communities and through a “whole-of-society” approach. Together with an overview of the policy actions taken in China, we are pleased to have two of our colleagues at the Embassy, Stefan Thorsell, the Customs Attaché and Lennart Nilsson, the Counsellor for Economic and Trade affairs, previously Counsellor for Agriculture and Forestry, to share their insights in this blog. 

The national decision on banning wild Animals consumption  

Already in 2016, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) flagged a worldwide increase in zoonotic epidemics, i.e.  diseases transmissible from animals to humans as an issue of concern. Specifically, it pointed out that 75 per cent of all emerging infectious diseases in humans are zoonotic and that these zoonotic diseases are closely interlinked with the health of our ecosystems.[1] Wet markets, where animals of different species are put under stress and in close contact with humans, are therefore an emerging and increasing risk to global health and the global economy.

The Chinese National People’s Congress’ decision from the 24th of February on “Comprehensively Prohibiting the Illegal Trade of Wild Animals, banEliminating the Bad Habits of Wild Animal Consumption, and Protecting the Health and Safety of the People” is an important step in the right direction. Particularly, it targets both the supply and the demand sides of the wild animal market. This national decision is based on similar decisions on the local level that are already being implemented and is planned to be incorporated into the revision of China’s Wildlife Protection Law later this year. 

The national decision in short: 

  • Prohibiting hunting, trade, transportation, and consumption of all terrestrial wild animals whether captive-bred or wild caught, intended for food consumption.
  • Exemptions from the ban include fish and other aquatic wild animals not protected in the Wild Animal Conservation Law or other laws/regulations (such as aquatic wild animal regulation), as well as livestock and poultry.
  • Trade of wildlife for non-food uses (e.g. medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine TCM, fur, zoo, pets, or biomedical research) are still allowed, but the decision calls for strict approvals and quarantine of wild animals for non-food uses. 

Alongside the policy actions, the public opinion in China is already largely in line with the ban on wildlife consumption.  For instance, an online survey by the Peking University Center for Nature Society with nearly 100,000 participants from January 28 to February 14, showed that nearly 97 percent of the respondents were against eating wild animals and 79 percent were against using wildlife products including furs and bones.[2] The UN’s biodiversity chief, Elizabeth Maruma Mrema  has recently called for a global ban on wildlife markets.[3]

China is however still importing large quantities of wildlife products for use in TCM. Organisations such as the WWF and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) have pointed out that, even though the end-purpose is not for human consumption, live trade in birds and mammals, still causes risks for future viral emergences. It also creates a potential loophole for traffickers to sell or trade wildlife and imposes additional challenges for law enforcement. 

“Wildlife trafficking increases biodiversity loss and fasten the extinction of species. It also breeds corruption, empowers criminals and the organized criminal networks are having negative societal and economical effects in the animals’ host countries. Reducing demand is the most efficient way to solve these problems. The international network of information sharing to track shipments, for instance, as part of the cooperation between Nordic Police and Customs and China, is an important tool to achieve it. But this will not be enough. I strongly believe that stakeholders engagement and information campaigns to reach out to the public and consumers to reduce the demand are extremely important and could be very efficient.”   

– Stefan Thorsell, Customs Attaché, the Embassy of Sweden, Beijing  

A broader and long-term view on the health of nature and humanity

The health of nature and humanity is not only about acute infectious diseases prevention and management, but also the long-term well-being of animals and people. This implies that not only wildlife trade should be given attention, livestock also serves as an epidemiological bridge between wildlife and humans, as in the case of the avian influenza. Therefore, how to manage our livestock to make them healthier and more sustainable needs to be taken into serious and timely consideration. In Sweden, for example, all cows must graze outside during the summer and all livestock should be given enough room to ensure their animal welfare. This makes happier and more healthy livestock. Almost every animal is individually diagnosed and treated in Sweden, which reduces the use of antibiotics and decreases the risk of antibiotic resistance. Growth-promotion antibiotics have been withdrawn from the market. 

Also, Swedish meat production has a small carbon footprint compared to production in other parts of the world. However, the meat consumption is still high at 83,5 kg per person and year in 2018 which is higher than the average meat consumption level within the EU[4]. Swedish people have, however, lowered their meet consumption for the years 2017 and 2018 and this trend, i.e. a sustainable lifestyle, for better environment and better health, is expected to continue. 

Sweden has a long tradition and a good track-record in the field of sustainable livestock production and is well-known for animal welfare and health. I see that the trend of an enhanced environment and health awareness of Swedish consumers is becoming a driver for making the Swedish meat industry more sustainable as well as benefiting the climate and our ecosystems. In recent years, the consumption of imported meat has decreased in Sweden, meaning that more Swedes now are willing to pay a bit more for more sustainable and environmentally friendly meat.” 

– Lennart Nilsson, Counsellor for Economic and Trade affairs, the Embassy of Sweden, Beijing 

Even though the consumption of meat from wild animals is quite low in Sweden, only about 2-3 percent of the total meat consumption, it is an important part of the traditional cuisine. There are strict requirements for dealing with wildlife in Sweden, to lower the risk of new zoonoses. Meat from wildlife such as moose, wild boar, deer and roe deer are actually labelled as more environmentally friendly than other meat produced in Sweden, making it a more environmentally friendly choice according to the WWF Sweden’s meat guide app. There are many successful stories of sustainable management of meat industries in many countries. Better dialogue and information exchange could be made on a global level to find ways to reduce the risk of future global pandemics and at the same time increase animal welfare. 

Figure: WWF- APP for guiding more sustainable meat consumption

The year 2020 was supposed to be a super year for the environment with both the COP26 defining the next phase of the Paris Agreement on climate change, and the development of a post-2020 global biodiversity framework at the COP15 meeting in China. Unfortunately, both these important meetings have been postponed due to the Covid-19 outbreak. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic is surely not only a health crisis, As Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, Acting Executive Secretary, UN Convention on Biological Diversity put it: “The message we are getting is if we don’t take care of nature, it will take care of us”.

Let us take this “message” with a sense of seriousness and urgency. Let the sense of seriousness and urgency take us to action, solidarity and a shared vision for a better health of nature and humanity. And, let this shared vision bring a better life, a better world and a better future – for all.    

Matilde Eng & Nannan Lundin

Earlier blog posts on Covid-19 from SIO- Beijing: 

[1] The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

[2] China Daily

[3] The Guardian

[4] Jordbruksverket