Continuing attempts to curb the sale of wild animals and their meat have failed to engender change at wet markets in the Asia Pacific, even as the region struggles to contain the largest and deadliest wave of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly three-quarters of emerging infectious diseases that spread to humans originate in animals.
The SARS virus, for example, which killed 800 people between 2002 and 2004, is thought to have started in bats before spreading to civets at a wildlife market in the Chinese city of Foshan.
In April, after its investigative team in China concluded a seafood market in Wuhan was the most likely route by which COVID-19 first jumped to humans, WHO took the unprecedented move of urging countries to pause the sale of captured wild mammals at wet markets as an emergency measure.
Animal welfare groups in Asia have been making the same demands for years, saying the unsanitary and cruel conditions in which wild and domestic animals are kept at wet markets are the perfect breeding ground for zoonotic diseases.
Several Asian countries have passed new laws to curb the sale of ‘bush meat’ and limit activity at wet markets during the pandemic.
But nearly all attempts to stamp out the trade have been hamstrung by the continuing popularity of bush meat among some people in Asia, the sector’s vast economic value and a lack of enforcement.
Stopping the trade “will be a challenging exercise,” said Li Shuo, global policy adviser for Greenpeace in China.
Last July, a presidential decree was issued in Vietnam suspending all wildlife imports and introducing much stiffer penalties for violators, including up to 15 years in prison.
But a survey last month by PanNature, an NGO, found no positive changes in the trade of wildlife products had occurred at the local level in Vietnam. Wet markets in the Mekong Delta and other parts of the country were found to still be selling turtles, birds and endangered wildlife species.
In Indonesia, the site of Asia’s worst COVID-19 outbreak with more than 2.5 million cases and at least 67,000 deaths, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry has been trying to convince local officials to close wildlife markets around the country since the start of the pandemic.
Officials in the city of Solo in Central Java were among those who took note, ordering the culling of hundreds of bats at Depok, one of the country’s largest bird, dog and wildlife markets. But the victory proved short lived.
“They brutally exterminated hundreds of bats when COVID-19 first hit and stopped selling them,” said Lola Webber, coalition coordinator at the Dog Meat-Free Indonesia Coalition. “But from what I’ve heard from my sources, it’s now business as usual.”
Marison Guciano, founder of Flight, an NGO protecting Indonesian birdlife, confirms Webber’s claim. “I was there one week ago and they are still openly selling bats as well as snakes, rabbits, turtles, ferrets, beavers, cats, dogs, hamsters, hedgehogs, parrots, owls, crows and eagles.”