Ten months since the first case of the novel coronavirus was reported in China, the world is still grappling for solutions. On no continent has anyone been able to reliably tame the pandemic. Over 33.5 million people have been afflicted. A tragic 1,006,701 have died, as of September 29, 2020. All because a single virus spilled over from its wild host to Homo sapiens.
There is global scientific and medical consensus that the current COVID-19 pandemic originated from bats, then reached humans, possibly through an intermediate animal host, like the pangolin. Thousands of these scaly anteaters are caught and slaughtered in Africa and India to supply markets across the world, including Wuhan, China. Scientists, virologists, epidemiologists and evolutionary biologists suggest that more pathogen spillovers are inevitable, unless we evolve a more sustainable relationship with nature and put an end to commercial wildlife trade.
There is no more denying that human health and survival are connected to the biological health of Planet Earth.
A UN report suggests that 75 per cent of all emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic, that is, caused by the transfer of pathogens from animals to humans. Diseases including AIDS, Ebola, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), Rift Valley fever, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), the West Nile virus, bird flu and swine flu were all the result of unnatural proximity between wild species and humans. Apart from eating exotic species supplied by the illegal wildlife trade, scientists and medical experts agree that mankind’s relentless destruction of natural ecosystems has been responsible for forcing animals and their viruses into human habitations.
Wet markets, in particular, create unhygienic conditions where wild species are stuffed into closed, cramped conditions that intensify the risk of pathogen transfers through saliva, blood, urine, mucous, feces, and other body fluids. Spillovers
also take place from bites and scratches and from vectors such as mosquitoes and fleas. Consuming the flesh of wild species, or eating food and water contaminated by them is literally inviting trouble. Even before we are able to deal with COVID-19, virus hunters warn that several more viruses could be unleashed at the hands of human folly.
‘Prevention is better than cure’ is a proverb for our times. To cut our chances of being struck by more spillovers, a global war on the illegal trade in wild species must be declared.
Wet markets, almost too numerous to list, thrive across India.
Tragically, the illegal trade in wild species, coupled with mass-scale habitat destruction also devastate forest communities, whose ancient ecosystems are vanishing. India’s traditional forest communities have survived down the centuries by relying on their customs and mores to forge a balance with wild flora and fauna. The cold-blooded international wildlife trade cartels lure a handful of members from such communities whose hunting skills are then put to use to feed bottomless markets.
To counter this, the Sanctuary Nature Foundation and The Corbett Foundation are working with partners and experts from India and across the globe to support enlightened young members of hunting tribes to fan through their communities and inform them of the dire consequences of allowing intruders to wipe out the animals and habitats that gave rise to their own cultures.
This is not going to be an easy task because the multibillion-dollar wildlife trade syndicates have common operatives with the illegal trades in arms, narcotics, money laundering and human trafficking. This is a national scourge that directly threatens our internal security as well.
To draw attention to and staunch the serious threat of yet another pandemic, the Sanctuary Nature Foundation and The Corbett Foundation (TCF) and Ketto have united to launch the ‘Stop Slaughtering Wildlife – Prevent the Next Pandemic’ campaign. The strategy and objectives are straightforward:
1. Work with key partners in and out of government, with food and health professionals and local communities across India to underscore the health consequences of habitat loss and the commercial trade in wild species.
2. Strategise community upliftment and generation of alternative livelihood opportunities that protect biodiversity to safeguard the security and lifestyles of ‘ecosystem people’.
3. Identify and support village youth to conserve their own natural heritage and win support for this objective from their elders through respectful, meaningful community
engagement in measurable ways.
4. Target online markets exploiting India through the global illegal wildlife trade.
5. Work with health professionals on spotlighting the dangers from uncomfortably close human-wildlife contact.
6. Engage with and involve policymakers. Donations raised from a Ketto crowdfunding endeavour will be used to support grassroots organisations and
individuals working with us to build bridges with local communities and to create awareness about the impact of close contact with wild species.