Wildlife trade: the threat to human health

We should all by now be familiar with the threats that introduced species can pose. They have done enormous damage to ecosystems all over the world. In Seychelles, we have seen it first hand. We have also been world leaders in the restoration of small island ecosystems, involving alien species control and habitat revival.

You may be less familiar with another threat posed by the wildlife trade. A recent study has shown this very clearly. The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), based in New York, has published a report that shows how the trade in wildlife is a threat to human health on a global scale.

Every year millions of wild animals are passed through national and international markets. The scope for transmission between species of pathogens and even of commonly benign microbes is huge. Domestic animals and scavenging species in market places exacerbate the problem. These elements combined present a hygiene and disease-spread issue on a world scale.

Since 1980, at least 35 new infectious diseases, including HIV and Ebola, have emerged in humans. This equates to one disease every eight months. Domestic animals and native species are also affected as they have no resistance to exotic diseases.

“A fungal disease called chytridiomycosis, a pathogen that has been spread by the international trade in African Clawed Frogs, is now threatening some 30 per cent of all the amphibian species worldwide with extinction”, says Dr Robert Cook, Vice President of Health Sciences at WCS. “Even parasites on animals in the trade carry animal and human pathogens”.

The economic costs of disease spread have totalled hundreds of billions of dollars. Even in the livestock trading system, BSE, foot and mouth disease, bird flu, swine flu and others have cost global economies some 80 billion dollars. The effects of the poorly regulated trade in wildlife could be even more costly. There is a suspected link between wildlife markets in China and the outbreak of the deadly SARS virus in humans. Ebola in Africa may be traced to bushmeat markets, as may West Nile virus and monkeypox. The origins of HIV in lower primates also points to a link between wildlife and catastrophic human viruses.

But there is a potential solution. The lowest cost way to minimise the impacts is to minimise contact between the species. Wildlife markets are the hub of the trade. Control of these is key to controlling the problem.

Seychelles has so far been lucky to be spared from disease outbreaks such as SARS. We are protected to some degree by our physical remoteness. The Animals (Diseases and Imports) Act has played its part. It has prevented the entry of many exotic species. This may over the years have disappointed some would-be exotic pet owners, but the sense of the policy should now be clear to all.

In the age of globalisation, and with new developments in Seychelles, we must remain vigilant. Not only are our precious ecosystems to be protected, but our own health – and possibly our very lives – may be at stake.

Published on Regar Weekly Newspaper, Seychelles, 11th July 2005

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