The Covid-19 coronavirus global pandemic has had an astonishing impact on our world, impacting almost every country and every person in some form or another. At the date of writing nearly two million people have been confirmed to have been infected and sadly over 130,000 people have died. Millions of people worldwide are living with some form of restriction on their daily movement, markets are in turmoil, businesses in many sectors are questioning their survival, individuals have lost their livelihoods and there is no clear answer as to when and how we may all get back to ‘normal’. Most of us have not lived through anything similar, and hope that we never will again. Given these horrifying statistics, the question must be raised – how did this happen? And how can we stop this happening again? Tackling the illegal wildlife trade will be critical. Companies across key sectors have an important role to play and will undoubtedly come under increased scrutiny over the coming months as the world comes to terms with the pandemic. There are some practical steps that these businesses can implement to curb global wildlife trade.
The source of Covid-19: a Chinese ‘wet market’?
It is generally accepted that the first concentration of Covid-19 cases originated around a market in Wuhan, China. This ‘wet market’ (so called because the floor stays wet as the blood from slaughtered animals is sluiced away) was one of many in the country selling a variety of live wild animals, housed in cages in close proximity to slaughtered meat, birds, fish, fruit and vegetables. And of course in close proximity to the humans transporting, killing and selling them.
Media reports, although unconfirmed, have indicated that the market was selling a huge range of animals including badgers, deer, pangolin, snakes, ducks, rabbits, peacocks, porcupine, bats and rats. Many of the animals for sale in such markets are farmed and on sale legally, but it is understood that this trade is commonly supplemented with illegal sales of wild animals. Chinese Government officials have stated that the source of the disease was illegally traded wildlife. In these large markets, prevalent across the region, this trade is extremely hard to regulate.
This is not the first time
Removing animals from their natural habits, transporting them over large distances, storing and ultimately slaughtering them in close proximity to other species, provides ideal conditions for disease to spread. The exact mode of transmission of Covid-19 is unconfirmed but bat, snake and pangolin have all been suggested as the intermediary host for the disease before transmission to humans.
Coronaviruses are common in bats, which are believed to be the root of the SARS pandemic (another coronavirus) that originated in China in late 2002 and spread to 29 countries, infecting over 8,000 people and killing over 800. In that case the virus is thought to have passed from bats to the civet cat, a farmed wild animal which is considered a delicacy in parts of China, and then to humans. At the time huge numbers of civet cats were slaughtered and their trade was banned, but several years later the meat was being sold in restaurants once again.
The profitability of illegal wildlife trade
In many Asian cultures the consumption of exotic animals is seen as reflective of status and wealth. There is also folklore that the consumption of wild animals will impart the strength of the animal to the consumer. Given this demand, the farming of wild animals is a lucrative business, particularly in rural areas where other business opportunities may be limited. A 2017 report by the Chinese Academy for Engineering widely quoted in the media, values wildlife farming for food and other uses at over USD 73 billion annually.
The United Nations estimates that global illegal wildlife trade is worth between USD 7 billion and USD 23 billion a year, making it one of the most profitable criminal enterprises. Much of the animal trade (and the money) flows between Africa, as the source continent and Asia as the consumer. The demand includes the well-known elephant ivory, rhino horn and pangolin. All are used in traditional Chinese medicine. The urban myth in Vietnam that rhino horn can cure cancer pushed the price up such that per kilogram it was more expensive than gold. Pangolin meat is considered a delicacy and although there is a legal market for pangolin in China, the majority consumed are trafficked from Africa.
Wildlife crime has been linked to drug, human and arms trafficking, as organised crime groups seek to exploit their established global transit networks. The trade drives corruption, damaging economies and exacerbating poverty and violence. The risks are therefore not only to endangered species and the planet’s biodiversity, but to the rule of law, to economies and, as highlighted by this crisis, to our health.
What has been done?
In February 2020 as a result of Covid-19, the Chinese government introduced emergency measures to limit the trade in wild animals for consumption and there are indications that the ban could be enacted into law. But since much of this activity is already illegal it is unlikely that such a law would eliminate the practise, but rather drive it further underground.
Since the ban was introduced, and even in the height of the global pandemic, consumers have still been willing and able to procure exotic meats using e-commerce platforms. Changing long-held cultural beliefs and behaviours is extremely challenging. It is also unlikely that a single country acting alone will make a substantial difference. When China introduced a ban on ivory trade in 2017, the trade became more prevalent in neighbouring Asian countries, particularly Vietnam.
What more can be done?
What further action will be taken by Governments in Asia and across the globe as a result of the current pandemic remains to be seen. There are many voices calling for a permanent and effective ban on wild animal trade. Wildlife organisations campaign to tackle this problem with a multi-pronged approach, proposing legislation and regulation, seeking to challenge long held cultural beliefs and myths and the sharing of information between law enforcement and the private sector to allow those unwittingly involved in the global trade to assist in eliminating it.
In the EU, environmental crime, including the illegal wildlife trade, is captured by the sixth Anti-Money Laundering Directive, due to become law across EU countries by December 2020, as a predicate offence to money laundering. This means that covered institutions and particularly financial services institutions should be considering illegal wildlife trade as part of their ‘Know Your Customer’ procedures. Financial Crime Compliance teams should become familiar with common red flags indicative of the activity, such as trade between known hot-spots in Africa and Asia, trade in product types becoming recognised as cover for illegal wildlife products and the connection to falsified trade documents.
In November 2019, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) announced the illegal wildlife trade as a key priority, under the current Chinese Presidency. FATF intend to work with the public and private sector, including the United for Wildlife Financial Taskforce , to produce a report outlining good practise in financial investigations into the wildlife trade. We should expect to see increased information sharing in this area and hopefully more criminal prosecutions. There will likely be more regulatory scrutiny of institutions who fail to implement these guidelines and become unwitting facilitators of this activity.
Companies in the global transportation sector should also be mindful that their services could be misused by illicit actors and exploited through corruption and security loopholes to carry illegal wildlife products. The United for Wildlife Transport Taskforce provides a mechanism for sharing information between transport companies and law enforcement, to help break the global trade.
For many reasons, it is clearly now more important than ever that we take action to eliminate this illicit trade. Given the new public consciousness of the issue, created by the pandemic, there is at minimum a significant reputational risk for companies who fail to prevent this illegal trade. Involvement in the wildlife trade could become as unacceptable as, for example, the use of child labour in the retail clothing industry. International policymakers are beginning to react to the illegal wildlife trade as a financial crime conducted for profit much like other illegal trafficking crimes and the penalties for such violations are likely to become commensurate to those other crimes. As the impact of this pandemic begins to materialise, it will take a collective effort to tackle illegal wildlife trade to mitigate the possibility of this happening again.
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