Thailand, COVID-19 and the wildlife trade

by Expat Life

From gateway to guardian by Steven R. Galster Freeland

COVID-19 was a biological bomb. Its impact has been worse than any terrorist act or natural disaster in the last 100 years. The last pandemic that was more damaging than COVID-19 was the Spanish flu, which infected a third of the world’s population and killed up to 50 million people. We are very lucky this time.

What caused COVID-19, and how can we avert another, even worse catastrophe?  Was it a bat from a lab? A pangolin from the market in Wuhan? Or both?

It actually does not matter. What does matter is what scientists do agree on: COVID-19 jumped from a wild animal to a person. That means it is a zoonotic disease – one that spread to pandemic proportions. Like several others have in the past that we all know about: HIV, Ebola, SARS, H5N1, MERS. They all jumped from wild animals, sometimes going straight to a person, sometimes via a domestic animal, like a pig, cow, camel, chickens, or other critters.

Zoonotic outbreaks are happening more frequently, and they are getting stronger. Why?  The main 2 reasons:

– First: Rising commercial wildlife trade, which brings wild animals into closer contact with people.

– Second: Destruction of wild habitat, which forces wild animals into human territory. Usually, this destruction of wild habitat is being done to make more space for intensive, industrial farming.

What about a cure?

The world is currently spending enormous effort and funds trying to create a vaccine. We also see costly stimulus and recovery packages offered by governments to put people and economies back on their feet. But these responses amount to expensive BAND-AID’s that will need frequent changing  – because a new vaccine will likely not work against the next outbreak. Each virus strain is unique.  Otherwise, we would be inoculating people now with the vaccine used for SARS (aka COVID-02).  We will then have to start all over again.

The only true, lasting vaccine is to treat the root cause of the pandemic: eliminating commercial trade in wild animals; protecting wild habitat; and promoting compassionate, sustainable farming.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-rVD9dkT-yc Protect nature and nature will protect us.  

Thailand’s response to COVID-19 has been remarkably good overall. Thailand boasts one of the lowest rates of COVID-19 transmission and deaths in the world. But Thailand has left one door open to another potential bomb occurring right here: its wildlife trade.

Thailand is  global gateway for commercial wildlife trade. Wild animals are still being transported through the country, legally and illegally. And the virus has demonstrated that it does not discriminate between legal and trafficked animals. One example: the recent legal importation of zebras from Africa that brought with them midges that infected and killed nearly 600 horses in Thailand with something called African Horse Sickness. Exotic wild animals from around the world – and from Thai commercial wildlife farms – are still being sold in the country, including at the animal section of Chatuchak market, as well as on various online platforms. One can purchase almost any exotic species from every corner of the globe in Thailand, ranging from zebras to giraffes, orang utans, chimpanzees, tigers, African gray parrots, Scarlet Macaws, Capybaras (the world’s largest rodent), iguanas, various turtles, tortoises, snakes, pangolins, and many more.

I am not picking on Thailand. My organisation, the counter-trafficking group Freeland was born in Thailand. We not only love this country, we want to make it a global model. We are campaigning globally to end pandemics (EndPandemics.Earth) along with our allies, including over 30 NGOs and the Thailand based company B. Grimm, which sponsored a 1 minute informational ad that is running on CNN around the world, reaching 600 million people. In fact we are campaigning in my country too, the USA, which is the 2nd biggest importer of wildlife in the world. But I am focusing here on Thailand for a reason.  Pandemics are global, which means we need a global leader. I believe Thailand can be that leader.

There are clear lessons that Thailand can learn from the past to protect its own people and become that global leader. Following the SARS outbreak in 2002-2003, China clamped down on wildlife trade, but ultimately decided to reopen its wildlife markets, while making them “cleaner” through stricter regulations that were designed to stop more zoonotic outbreaks.

Stricter market regulations clearly did not do the trick.  

We now know that a zoonotic transmission in one country can impact the world like a viral bomb that may last months or years. Following the COVID-19 outbreak, China decided to close all wildlife markets, and ban trade and consumption of wild animals.  While these measures are not yet permanent, some Chinese officials are currently considering permanent measures. These stronger steps by China this time around should be sending a clear signal to Thailand and other countries. China’s commercial wildlife trade is estimated to be worth $74 billion a year. Imagine the opposition by wildlife traders. But China’s leadership has weighed the costs and benefits, as should the rest of the world. The Asian Development Bank estimates that COVID-19’s economic destruction may top $9 trillion. Add to that the millions sick, hundreds of thousands dead, not to mention businesses and schools closed in every corner of the world, and the immeasurable psychological impact on society everywhere.

It’s time that we change our relationship with nature.  We need a leader to set an example for the world to follow to avoid going through this again. The World Health Organization and United Nations are calling on nations to adopt a “One Health” approach that covers the health of people and nature. But no country has yet converted these recommendations and words into practical firm action. Thailand can be that leader.

Thailand can go from wildlife trade “Gateway” to wildlife “Guardian”.  How?

First: The Government can be the first country in the world to issue a ban on commercial trade in wild animals.  Vietnam’s Prime Minister recently issued a directive to ban imports of wildlife, which is a big step forward. But Vietnam has not issued a complete and permanent ban on the trade.  

Second: The Prime Minister can convene a multi-agency task force to implement the ban, including transitioning legal wild animal dealers and breeders into a new line of work else through a one time compensation. Pay now, or pay much more later with a new zoonotic outbreak. In fact, the governments Anti-Money Laundering Organisation (AMLO) can turn counter wildlife trafficking into a cash cow for nature conservation by seizing assets from illegal wildlife dealers and reprogramming them for wildlife and habitat recovery.  

Third: Restart and lead an ASEAN wildlife enforcement network (ASEAN-WEN).   Wildlife and viruses cross borders. Nations need to collaborate to prevent trafficking and transmissions. Thailand led this active and impactful network for more than 10 years before it paused when international funds dried up. Lets revive ASEAN-WEN.

Finally: Expand and model Thailand’s tiger recovery programme, which is showing promising signs of success. Tigers are among the most critically endangered species in the world. Saving tigers from extinction is important in its own right because they are apex predators that help regulate and protect entire ecosystems. But on top of that, a success story for tigers is a boon to wildlife and wild habitat conservation globally.  Thailand can sustain and share its successful tiger comeback story with other conservationists to inspire global recovery of wildlife and their habitats.  

By taking these steps, Thailand can top off its exemplary performance on COVID-19 and become the “One Health” leader of the world: protecting people, wild animals, and ecosystems from future pandemics.  Imagine the country reopening its borders in the future and attracting people looking for a safe place for holidays and investments with its new reputation as a leader in Planetary Health.  

Steven R. Galster is Founder and Chairman of Freeland, a Thailand based international NGO that counters wildlife and human trafficking (www.freeland.org). Freeland is spearheading the #EndPandemics campaign (www.endpandemics.earth) with support from B. Grimm.

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