To prevent pandemics, ‘ban live animal markets,’ UN biodiversity chief says

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Editors note: This article was produced in partnership with Earth Day Network. In a democracy, every voice matters. Click here to pledge to vote on environmental progress in 2020.

Should wildlife markets worldwide be shuttered to prevent outbreaks like the coronavirus?

That’s the question many people are asking in the wake of the disease, which may have begun in a “wet market” in Wuhan, China. In such markets, animals of various species are bought live or slaughtered onsite.

China has temporarily closed those markets. The secretary general of China’s Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation supports this move and believes it should be implemented globally.

But the United Nation’s biodiversity chief, Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, offered a more balanced response. Said Mrema, a longtime lawyer with the UN Environment Programme from Tanzania,

It would be good to ban the live animal markets as China has done and some countries. But we should also remember you have communities, particularly from low-income rural areas, particularly in Africa, which are dependent on wild animals to sustain the livelihoods of millions of people.

She went on to note that just banning markets would likely push the wildlife trade underground, rather than actually addressing the problem.

A question of conservation

Mrema emphasized the importance of preserving biodiversity in preventing future outbreaks.

Biodiversity loss is becoming a big driver in the emergence of some of these viruses. Large-scale deforestation, habitat degradation and fragmentation, agriculture intensification, our food system, trade in species and plants, anthropogenic climate change – all these are drivers of biodiversity loss and also drivers of new diseases.

All the factors that she named above result in animals living in closer contact with people. Increased human-wildlife interactions raise the odds of diseases spreading between species.

Are “wet markets” even to blame?

It’s worth noting that the oft-repeated story of coronavirus starting in the Wuhan wet market might not actually be accurate. While scientists are fairly confident the virus originated in bats, there isn’t a clear consensus on when it jumped to humans.

Some researchers believe the wet market theory. But a peer-reviewed study that found that many of the earliest people to fall ill had no direct contact with the market.

Another theory holds that a farmer harvesting bat droppings for fertilizer may have been the first to contract the disease. That farmer would have then unknowingly infected others in the Wuhan area.

Until we have more definite answers about the disease’s origins, it’s difficult to know what steps should be taken to prevent a similar pandemic from happening again. But as Mrema noted, protecting biodiversity will never be a bad move.

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