Conservation and Coronavirus
Our world is consumed by fear. The coronavirus (Covid-19) has already caused thousands of deaths. The social, political and economic consequences- unfolding before our eyes each day- could be painful for many of us. The EPI Foundation had its own, comparatively minor, setback this month, as we were forced to postpone a workshop on human-elephant conflict in Botswana, in which we’d hoped to bring together experts and conservationists from our member countries across the continent.
It may seem perverse to talk about clouds and silver linings in these challenging times, but it’s incumbent on all of us to not only do what we can to minimise the spread of the coronavirus, but also use this moment of shock to try and shape a better world. And so to conservation. From the beginning of the epidemic in Wuhan Province in China, rumours linked the virus to the eating of animals bought at a so-called ‘wet market’, which scientists believe was the origin of the 2003 SARS epidemic. Some of China’s wet markets sell an exotic mixture of domesticated and wild animals, many of which are smuggled from other parts of the world. The rumours vary. Some say that bats are vectors, and one may have bitten an animal at the market, from where it was transmitted to humans. Another rumour is that pangolins- smuggled into China in vast quantities from Africa and elsewhere in Asia in recent years- are vectors. None of this may be true. Indeed, some scientists dispute the link between this latest virus and a wet market. But the widespread perception is out there- that China’s appetite for wild animal meat comes with a human health risk. This creates two potentially positive opportunities for those of us trying to protect Africa’s wildlife. The first is that the Chinese authorities will redouble their efforts to crack down on the illegal trade. We hope they do. This will benefit pangolins, elephants, rhinos and any number of other species. Another, potentially more important legacy of coronavirus, is that Chinese consumer demand for illegal wildlife products should fall of its own accord. This could be transformative, perhaps in neighbouring countries like Vietnam as well. Those who study the wildlife trade urge caution. John Sellar, of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, warns that ‘where use of wildlife products is so deeply entrenched, any change will not come easily’. Thankfully, as of the time of writing, it appears the coronavirus epidemic in China itself has already peaked. Out of every crisis comes opportunity is a hoary old truism, but if ever there was a time for campaigners within China against illegal wildlife crime to press home their message, this might be it