The Wildlife Trade & Disease Spread
The world is currently on edge — justified or not — due to the coronavirus outbreak originating in Wuhan, China. Cities of millions are on lockdown, travel is restricted, and researchers are tirelessly working towards a treatment. The source of this potentially-pandemic-scale disease? A live animal market that sells exotic wildlife for consumption, including snakes, bats, and crocodiles. The SARS outbreak of the early 2000s was linked to a similar market, with wild-caught civet cats being the likely source of transmission.
The wildlife trade, aside from being morally problematic, represents a massive contagion threat, and current regulatory oversight is unsuited to preventing disease introduction. This study — published before the recent outbreak — examined the numbers surrounding the global trade in wildlife and wildlife products, and focused specifically on possible disease transmission into the United States through this trade.
Around one-third of total wildlife imports to the U.S. from 2000 to 2013 contained live animals, of which roughly one half were fish, invertebrates, or amphibians destined for the companion trade. Exotic birds, reptiles, and rodents sold as companions were the next-largest group. China was the leading exporter of individual animals and products during this period, while Indonesia was the leader in individual shipments. The U.S. and E.U. were the main importers of wildlife and wildlife products. Over 99% of wildlife imports were legally declared and allowed into the country. Commonly-refused items were sturgeon caviar, baby harp seal pelts, elephant ivory, crocodilian leather, and peafowl feathers. Live wildlife were also refused entry, mostly corals, fish, and reptiles/amphibians from Southeast Asia, as well as birds and corals from the Caribbean.
Roughly half of U.S. imports came through only three ports: Los Angeles, New York City, and Miami. If we are to prevent the introduction of diseases through live wildlife importation, the government must focus on these ports of entry, as tracking wildlife after importation is nearly impossible. The authors believe that the main threats come from the large amounts of live aquatic animals that we import; they are closely packed together and are rarely individually examined for health.
Most shipments that were refused were done so for conservation reasons, not pathogen protection. The current regulatory framework is disjointed and not focused on prevention of disease introduction in general. The CDC does monitor wildlife imports, but only for specific diseases linked to specific animals. The USDA monitors imported agricultural animals, but again, only looking for specific diseases.
Even though the U.S. imports millions of wild animals from around the world, the study shows that the government is largely uninterested in preventing disease transmission through live wildlife imports. However, it isn’t totally fair to blame the U.S. government alone, since no international body exists to regulate the wildlife trade with the goal of reducing disease transmission. The creation of a body to track animal-transmitted diseases could become a necessity if epidemics like Wuhan become more common and/or deadly. In the meantime, this information provides another argument against the exotic companion animal trade and industry: in addition to being morally problematic, it is potentially aiding the spread of deadly diseases across the globe.