Impact of Illegal Trafficking on Wildlife

Every time a hunter traps a wild animal in the forest, it creates an interface between wildlife and people across which viruses or bacteria can pass. This effect multiplies as that animal moves along the market chain, changing hands through rural markets and often across international borders. Trade does not take place in isolation; it enables the transfer of pathogens between wild and domestic species, animals that normally would not be coming into contact. 

It was these same processes that led to the emergence of new viral strains such as SARS coronavirus that emerged from the wet markets of Guangdong, involving bats and small carnivores, and ultimately lead to over 8,000 human cases in 37 countries worldwide and the death of almost 800 people. Similar processes have contributed to the emergence of highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza, which has spread on an intercontinental scale, impacting food security, inducing billions of dollars of economic losses through control measures and disruption to agricultural trade, as well as the deaths of more than 300 people. 

 Approximately 30 million people are currently living with and almost 2 million people die each year from HIV/AIDS in what is perhaps the largest epidemic of animal origin in human history, with the virus having originated in chimpanzees that were presumably hunted. Overall, over 70% of emerging zoonotic pathogens (i.e., pathogens from animals that affect humans) originate in wildlife populations.

Conditions in the wildlife trade disrupt the normal ecological and evolutionary equilibria of animals and the commensal and pathogenic organisms they carry. Moving wildlife along trade/import/export routes exposes animals to a broader geographic and taxonomic range of other animals as well as humans to whom they can transmit any pathogens they carry. Essentially this links together previously fragmented populations and enhances most pathogens’ ability to spread. Furthermore, as an influx of susceptible hosts is placed into contact with an infected animal being transported along a trade route, we risk a quite dangerous scenario wherein the most virulent pathogenic strains are the ones that are transmitted first, setting off local epidemics whose impact is higher than would be expected in that pathogen’s natural habitat.

Human livelihoods in rural areas across the tropic forest world are closely bound to hunting of wildlife for food and income. In rural Gabon, 60% of protein comes from wild meat. Ten indigenous groups in Latin America consume an average of 59.6 g of protein per person per day from wild meat, a figure well above the required protein levels for healthy subsistence. In Sarawak, Malaysia, wild meat is eaten in 29% of all meals of indigenous peoples, and 67% of all meals of the Kelabits there, and is their main source of protein. Across the tropics, many more peoples whose cultures are in transition from a subsistence to a market economy depend on hunting as a fall-back in times of hardship. Loss of wildlife along newly-created roads to distant markets means that a vital resource is lost.

Remote forest peoples who have few or no alternatives are driven even further into poverty. Over a ten year period, as their area became more opened up by roads and outside pressures, the proportion of successful hunts of the Agta people in the Philippines declined from 63% to 16%, and the number of kills per hunt declined by 86%. The Agta went from being hunters of abundant wildlife in primary forests, to being struggling foragers with inadequate wildlife resources. Attaining solutions that allow such people to hunt sustainably, while preventing the massive loss of wildlife resources to trade, is difficult, but essential if the resource is to be conserved, and rural livelihoods maintained.

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