Coronavirus outbreak may curb wildlife trafficking

Pangolin that escaped from a community forest in Sankhuwasaba district in June 2019 rolls into its scales for safety before being released back into the wild. Pangolins are the world's most trafficked mammals and are also smuggled from Nepal to China across the Himalaya. Photo: SUJAN BAJRACHARYA/RSS

China is world's biggest market for the illegal trade in wildlife for food and traditional medicine, and its blanket ban announced this week may actually save some endangered species from extinction.

The Chinese government said the ban on selling wild animal in markets would be in force ‘until the end of national epidemic’. However, conservationists including Chinese academics, are pushing for a permanent ban and believe the outbreak can be an opportunity to conserve endangered Asian and African wildlife.

“A temporary ban does not address the larger problem, there will always be a risk of infections like coronavirus as long as there is demand for wildlife in China,” says Tulshi Laxmi Suwal of Nepal’s Small Mammal Conservation and Research Foundation who did her PhD on pangolins from National Pintung University in Taiwan.

Read also: Why Nepal must watch Coronavirus, but not panic, Sameer M Dixit

Early studies have pointed to bats as the source of the 2019 novel coronavirus -- now named Covid-19 -- and scientists are trying to figure out how it jumped from animals to humans. The origin of the epidemic has been traced to a seafood market in Wuhan that also sold wild animals.

However, other Chinese researchers on Friday said that pangolins  the world's most trafficked mammal, might be the missing link between bats and humans.

African and Asian pangolins are hunted for the meat, considered a delicacy by locals. Its scales are used extensively as an ingredient in Chinese traditional medicine. All eight species of the mammals found in Asia and Africa are on the endangered list.

"Bats alone are known to carry anywhere between 40-200 different viruses. Eating meat of wild animals or close interaction with one can transmit the virus to humans," says Sanjan Thapa who is pursuing PhD on bats at China’s Quangchau University.

Read also: A Nepali in Beijing during coronavirus scare, Rastraraj Bhandari

Whatever the mode of transmission, the latest outbreak has once again brought to the forefront the rise of zoonotic diseases and its critical association with flourishing illegal wildlife trade, especially in China.

There is a fear that the Covid-19 epidemic will push many in China to resort to powdered rhino horn as a cure for the flu. Rhinos poaching in Africa and India already feeds the demand in traditional Chinese medicine.

Covid-19 has killed at least 1,300 people as of Thursday, more than SARS in 2002-2003, despite its lower fatality rate of 2.2% against 9.6% for SARS. The newer virus, however, is the more contagious and has spread to 28 countries with over 60,000 confirmed cases.

Before the Covid-19 epidemic, there were SARS and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) that also originated from animals. The SARS virus moved from bats to civets and then to humans. Camels were the source of the MERS virus in 2012 in West Asia. Ebola outbreak (2013-2016) was also traced to bats.

Experts believe that the coronavirus scare will also lead to decline in poaching and trafficking of wildlife in Nepal, which is on the traditional route for trafficking of endangered species from India to China and has flourished as a transit hub for smuggling of pangolin scales, rhino horns, tiger and leopard skin and elephant tusks.

“Once the demand in China goes down, poaching and smuggling here in Nepal will also decline. Conservation efforts in Nepal will gain a lot if a permanent ban on wildlife trade is placed in China,” adds Suwal. “This is also a good time to create awareness about the higher risk of zoonotic diseases on those involved in the illicit trade so that they are discouraged to continue.”

According to District Forest Office Kathmandu, 1,798 body parts of 10 wildlife species destined for China were confiscated in the last eight years. Of those, 1,468 belonged to different species of birds, 94 to red pandas  92 to leopards and 42 to pangolins. Nepal Police has filed 880 cases against poachers in the past 18 years.

Says Sindhu Dhungana of Ministry of Forest and Environment: “National and international coordination is essential to control wildlife crime and impossible to do so without a cross-border collaboration between Nepal, India and China.”

With additional reporting by Mukesh Pokhrel.

Sonia Awale


Sonia Awale is Executive Editor of Nepali Times where she also serves as the health, science and environment correspondent. She has extensively covered the climate crisis, disaster preparedness, development and public health -- looking at their political and economic interlinkages. Sonia is a graduate of public health, and has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Hong Kong.