Campaigners have urged China to apply a permanent ban on the wildlife trade following the coronavirus outbreak. Markets selling live animals are considered a potential source of diseases that are new to humans.
There has been speculation just such a market in Wuhan could have been the starting point for the outbreak.
China put a temporary ban on the trade in wildlife as one measure to control the spread of coronavirus, but conservationists say it’s not enough.
They argue that, in addition to protecting human health, a permanent ban would be a vital step in the effort to end the illegal trading of wildlife.
Campaigners say that China’s demand for wildlife products, which find uses in traditional medicine, or as exotic foods, is driving a global trade in endangered species.
More than 70% of emerging infections in humans are estimated to have come from animals, particularly wild animals.
Experts with the World Health Organization (WHO) say there’s a high likelihood the new coronavirus came from bats. But it might have made the jump to a currently unknown animal group before humans could be infected.
The viruses behind Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers) are also thought to have originated in bats. But they are thought to have circulated in civet cats and camels, respectively, before being transmitted to humans.
“We are coming into contact with species of wildlife and their habitats that we were not with before,” Dr Ben Embarek, with the department of nutrition and food safety at the WHO.
A recent analysis of the nearly 32,000 known land-based vertebrate species showed that around 20% of them are bought and sold on the global wildlife market – either legally or illegally.
A study by the conservation group WWF showed the illegal wildlife trade is worth around $20bn per year. It is the fourth biggest illegal trade worldwide, after drugs, people smuggling and counterfeiting.
The wildlife products industry is a major part of the Chinese economy, and has been blamed for driving several species to the brink of extinction.
“This health crisis must serve as a wake-up call for the need to end the unsustainable use of endangered animals and their parts, as exotic pets, for food consumption and for their perceived medicinal value,” WWF said in a statement.