More than nine out of 10 people in Southeast Asia want the state to end wildlife trafficking, according to a new poll from the World Wildlife Fund that shows unprecedented consensus after COVID-19 spread from animals to humans.
WWF International said that 93% of people polled in the region would like “action by their governments to eliminate illegal and unregulated wildlife markets,” which the organization said is the second biggest threat to global biodiversity, after habitat destruction.
Although COVID-19 is believed to have broken out at a meat market in China, nations in Southeast Asia often act as transit hubs to get trafficked wildlife into China. Governments in the region have started to introduce more new laws to crack down on the illegal trade as a result.
“People are deeply worried and would support their governments in taking action to prevent potential future global health crises originating in wildlife markets,” Marco Lambertini, the director-general of WWF International, said last week. “It is time to connect the dots between wildlife trade, environmental degradation, and risks to human health.”
He added that taking action now “is crucial for all of our survival.”
It is believed COVID-19 spread from an animal to a human in China in December, and reactions have ranged from foreign pundits snubbing Chinese who eat bats or snakes, to the government itself taking action to ban the consumption of wild meat.
Neighbors in Southeast Asia now are starting to follow suit with exactly the kind of action desired by WWF survey respondents.
In the Philippines for instance, the government is working on a draft law that includes as much as 20 years in prison for those found guilty of wildlife trafficking, according to Theresa Tenazas, a lawyer for Philippine’s state Biodiversity Management Bureau.
She said authorities must more closely regulate contact between humans and animals, particularly at wet markets.
“The conditions of these markets are ideal for incubating new diseases and bolster their transmission,” she wrote in an analysis for the bureau. “They form one of the most detrimental bridges created by man over the natural barriers that previously separated humans and wild animals.”
Vietnam has taken similar steps to crack down on the trade of wild animal products, and there is pressure on Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar to toughen restrictions as well.
Southeast Asia is particularly at risk of viral contagion because of its close proximity to China. Outside of China, the Philippines was the first to report a death linked to COVID-19, while Thailand was the first to report a COVID-19 infection.
“Our global connectedness means the risk of re-introduction and resurgence of the disease will continue,” World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Monday.
The WHO has confirmed COVID-19 is a “zoonotic disease,” meaning humans first became infected with it from animals, most likely bats. While bats were consumed legally before China’s crackdown, other animal parts commonly trafficked to China through Southeast Asia come from pangolins, rhinos and elephants.
Other viruses have spread from animals to humans, including SARS, MERS and Ebola, WWF said.