Much is being written about the trade of live wildlife for human consumption at wet markets around the world, such as the one in Wuhan where the Covid-19 pandemic is believed to have spread from. Many are concerned with how similar zoonotic spillovers can be prevented in the future.
The Chinese Academy of Engineering claims that the ‘legal’ wildlife industry is valued at $74 billion. South Africa is the largest exporter of live wild animals to Asia. At least 5 035 live wild animals were exported from South Africa to China between 2016 and 2019, according to The Breaking Point report published by the EMS Foundation and Ban Animal Trading (BAT).
This China section of the Extinction Business Report Series was pre-released in light of the Covid-19 pandemic to draw urgent attention to the extensive irregularities in the ‘legal’ trade – in which South Africa plays a leading role.
The report illustrates how South Africa’s legal trade in live wildlife and their derivative parts could provide a front for the illegal trade. South Africa witnessed the fifth highest number of wildlife trafficking seizures in the world between 2016 and 2018.
The United Nations’ Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) attempts to govern the global trade, on the condition that it is legal and sustainable. CITES allows for regulated international trade of certain captive-bred endangered and threatened species from registered breeding facilities for ‘non-commercial’ purposes.
The report claims that “any captive breeding and trade legitimises and normalises consumption, which renders reduction campaigns incoherent and ineffective, and puts wild species at further risk of exploitation”.
It uncovered how wildlife traffickers exploit the convention’s many irregularities and loopholes. Illegal shipments of wild-caught threatened animals masquerade as legal exports. CITES’s exporting permits still operate on a manual, paper-based system that is subject to fraud and falsification – many lack verified export addresses, are unsigned and undated, and are not checked prior to export.
Conservationist and wildlife photographer, Karl Ammann, also documented the shortcomings of the CITES permitting system in his The Cites Permitting System And The Illegal Trade In Wildlife report which exposes how CITES lacks enforcement capabilities. Highly protected Appendix 1 animals are also traded into theme and amusement parks, circuses, laboratories, zoos and safari parks. Middle men and companies that front as legitimate, registered wildlife importing entities also illegally sell animals on to third parties.
“It’s time to rethink the role of CITES,” said CITES’ former Secretary-General, John Scanlon, during the ‘Can CITES help prevent the next pandemic?’ webinar hosted by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). He called for CITES’s urgent re-evaluation and questioned whether wildlife trade cause the next pandemic.
The CITES Secretariat responded to the pandemic by stating that health risks and “matters regarding zoonotic diseases are outside of CITES’s mandate”.
China has taken the first step. Beijing, Zhuhai and Shenzhen have implemented a permanent ban on the consumption of wildlife by offering temporary buyouts of exotic species and compensation to breed livestock or switch to growing tea, fruits, herbs and vegetables. Wuhan has imposed a five-year ban on the trade and consumption of wildlife. Similarly, each country would need to amend their legislation.
In response to the report, the Minister of the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF), Barbara Creecy, held an online meeting with the EMS Foundation and BAT.
In a press statement issued after the meeting, the report’s authors responded saying, “we believe a moratorium is an appropriate first-step response to addressing the expansive systemic problems. Given the degree and nature of the failings of the current system, it would be irresponsible to continue exporting wild animals until the investigation has been completed and the problems have been addressed”.
While she did not agree to a moratorium on the export of live wildlife and declined any policy discussions, DEFF committed to increased transparency via appropriate forums and the strengthening of the export permit system.
The DEFF agreed to investigate the allegations over the next three months and to undertake any necessary remedial action. It will also review whether remedial action might strengthen the regulatory and administrative systems in pursuit of the Convention, as well as South Africa’s conservation and sustainable use objectives.
She maintained that “South Africa remains committed to the highest level of compliance with its international obligations, and to act in accordance with and in fulfilment of the Convention’s legal and scientific requirements.”
The report argues that “bans have lower transaction costs than regulations and send clear signals that consumption is no longer socially and ecologically legitimate”.
Furthermore, it called for an alternative global agreement to be drafted in the spirit of the Convention and recommended that in situ conservation be prioritised in the place of wildlife trade.
Indeed, in the words of Scanlon, “The Covid-19 pandemic has reminded us in a devastating way of the interconnected nature of things, most particularly between economies, the environment, human and wildlife health and welfare”.