As efforts to curb the COVID-19 pandemic accelerate around the world, wildlife conservationists have welcomed a move by the Chinese government to outlaw the hunting and consumption of all terrestrial wild animals.
Underlying this strategy is a credible theory that the virus leapt from an animal species — most likely a pangolin or bat — to humans in a market in Wuhan, China. Precisely how this occurred is still a matter of debate, but so far, the virus has infected over 720,000 and killed more than 34,000 people as of 30 March.
And yet, the new ban - if it is replicated by other countries - overlooks the reality that millions of people, often indigenous peoples and members of rural communities, rely on wild meat and fish as their sole source of dietary protein, fat and micronutrients.
Based on our research, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), which has been working with our partners on understanding the implications of the interactions between wild animals, humans and forested landscapes for many years, believes that in areas where there is no alternative source of protein the consumption of wild meat should be allowed to continue and be banned in locations where alternative sources of protein exist.
Making the leap
Most of our findings — published in peer-reviewed journals — demonstrate that the root of the problem is deforestation and landscape degradation, which has led to systemic environmental alterations, increasing the chances of diseases jumping from animals to humans.
For example, in recent research results published inMammal Review, we suggested that when bats in the rainforests of West and Central Africa are unsettled by human activities leading to deforestation, their habitats expand, increasing their contact with people and influencing the spread of the deadly Ebola disease. Forested areas are often cleared to plant orchards. Agricultural activities increase the number of people moving to areas where there is a greater food supply for bats.
Research we published in Nature suggests that the probability of an Ebola outbreak increases in sites linked to recent deforestation events, and that forest conservation and restoration could lower the likelihood of future outbreaks.
The reality is that more than six out of every ten known infectious diseases in people are zoonotic, and that three of every four new or emerging infectious diseases in people are zoonotic, according to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Diseases that have made the jump from animals to humans (zoonoses) include highly virulent HIV/AIDS, MERS, bird flu and SARS.
Wet markets in cities and urban areas, wildlife trafficking and trade should be stopped. But instead of demonizing bats, primates, pangolins and other mammals we must keep in mind that circumstances in urban settings are very different than those for subsistence hunters living in forested areas.
Rural and wild meat must be available for the people who rely on it and have no alternative, but it should not be consumed in cities where people generally have other sources of protein available to them. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, we were involved in an extensive research project into the uses of wild meat in cities, consumed primarily by people who consider it an exotic food item or a luxury. We are continuing our studies through the Sustainable Wildlife Management Programme with support from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
In 2015, we wrote in Conservation Biology that blame must not be placed on mammals so that acts-of-revenge land clearance and habitat destruction are not enacted as large areas of African bush were once cleared to prevent the spread of sleeping sickness.
We argued that Ebola should not be used as a Trojan horse to achieve wildlife conservation ends both because some of these measures are of questionable efficacy and may backfire, and because doing so raises unfortunate associations with the long history of an outdated discourse of conservation in Africa that favored wildlife over people.
The situation is made even more complex by incursions — often by settlers involved in natural resource extraction or agriculture — which have fractured historic tenure rights, dismantling or putting livelihoods, wildlife and ecosystems at risk as we explained in a paper published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment earlier this year.
We need to change our views on wild meat consumption. Current arguments by conservationists largely support a blanket ban on wild meat consumption worldwide. But this overlooks the environmental disequilibrium and havoc resulting from government policies that permit soybean production in Brazil, deforestation of the Amazon rainforest and the disruption caused by oil palm plantations in Indonesia.
There is much to be learned about the intertwined destinies of humans and wildlife. The study of Ebola, Marburg, Lassa fevers and other zoonoses that cross over from animal reservoirs to humans must be put in context that precedes the human-human contagion phase.
We must investigate interactions between humans and infected wildlife through thorough studies of landscape change and use by humans and animals and of their interactions from pre-colonial times to the present.