There has been justifiable anger over reports that the source of COVID-19 was a wildlife market in Wuhan, China. That a particular trade, much of it illegal, should unleash a deadly pandemic and economic disaster on the world seems unfathomable.
While the outrage is warranted, it has, sadly, degenerated into racism and pointless xenophobia, which is widespread on social media. It would be far better to channel the anger so many of us are feeling into taking concrete steps to end the wildlife trade. Outrage needs to be turned into action.
Despite countless warnings from scientists and wildlife campaigners, governments at all levels have not taken the threat of zoonotic diseases (diseases that spread from animals to humans) seriously enough. Ebola, SARS, and monkeypox have been linked to the wildlife trade and scientists estimate that at least 70 percent of emerging infectious diseases originate in wildlife. Yet after each of these outbreaks, the trade has returned to business as usual.
It’s incumbent on the international community, including Canada, to ensure this doesn’t happen again.
Former B.C. MP and federal minister James Moore recently suggested that Canada table a resolution at the UN General Assembly calling for the closure of wild-animal markets in China. There is certainly public support for this kind of action, as recent polling shows 68 percent of Canadians would like to see governments around the world implementing a ban on such markets.
But there are other actions Canada can take to address the issue. Earlier this month, a coalition of conservationists, academics, and politicians called for an international agreement to end the illegal wildlife trade in the form of a new protocol under the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. It would specifically cover wildlife crime, which the convention currently excludes. That’s the kind of international agreement Canada should take a lead in pushing for.
The wildlife trade is only one of the drivers of emerging zoonotic disease. Deforestation, mining, urbanization, and land conversion encroach on wildlife habitat, not only threatening biodiversity but increasing our exposure to wildlife and the pathogens they carry. Canada, a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity, can press for greater international commitment to habitat protection.
At the national level, there’s also a case for Canada to get its own house in order when it comes to combating the illegal wildlife trade and protecting Canadians from zoonotic disease. A key issue is lack of resources.
The federal government’s Wildlife Enforcement Directorate is currently tasked with fighting wildlife crime (along with enforcing a range of wildlife-protection legislation). Yet according to a 2017 article in Canadian Geographic, the directorate had only 75 field officers nationwide. The article quotes the director general of the directorate on the continued rise in wildlife crime: “And when you couple that with downward trends in government spending, that means more work for us and fewer resources to do it.” A 2017 survey of the directorate’s employees found that 65 percent felt that the quality of their work suffered because of “having to do the same or more work, but with fewer resources”.
Provincial governments also have a role to play in addressing disease risks originating from imported or smuggled wildlife. B.C. currently has some of the strongest and most comprehensive provincial regulations dealing with non-native and exotic animals. The Controlled Alien Species Regulation (CASR) governs "the possession, breeding, shipping, and releasing of alien animals that pose a risk to the health or safety of people, property, wildlife, or wildlife habitat."
However, the CASR was chiefly designed to counter the risks of physical harm from exotic animals. (It was established following the killing of a B.C. resident by a pet tiger in 2007.) The government is due to review the CASR this year, providing a timely opportunity to examine whether it adequately protects B.C from zoonotic-disease risks. A 2012 report advised the then-government to do exactly that but it is unclear what impact the report had on the CASR. For example, it recommended that bats (which carry numerous viruses) be added to the CASR list of prohibited species but bats are currently not listed.
The rest of Canada’s provinces are a patchwork of legislation and regulation of exotic wildlife. In Ontario, for example, there are virtually no provincial laws regulating the keeping of exotic species. Municipalities across the country have a variety of different exotic-pet bylaws, and some have no laws at all. There have been periodic calls for an end to this piecemeal approach to regulation, with the federal government imposing a comprehensive uniform policy, but nothing has happened.
Clearly, there is more Canadian authorities can do—at the international, national, provincial, and local government levels—to help end the illegal-wildlife trade and protect the public from the potentially catastrophic threat it represents to public health.
Comprehensive action will come at a cost but it will be a fraction of the trillions of dollars now being spent to deal with the consequences of not acting sooner. When this pandemic is over, we must not make the mistake of failing to invest in preventing the next one.