Scientists suspect that a seafood market in the Chinese city of Wuhan is the likely cause of the coronavirus epidemic, which has claimed 170 lives so far. The market was known for the illegal trade in wild animals such as snakes, raccoons and porcupines, kept in cages to be sold either as food or medicine, until the entire province was brought into use. quarantine.
China is the world’s largest consumer of wildlife products, whether legal or illegal.
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According to officials from the World Health Organization, the main source is most likely from bats. But they believe the virus has migrated to another animal, which has yet to be identified, before infecting humans.
China has traditionally had a huge appetite for wildlife products. Some animals are consumed for their taste, as a delicacy, while others are consumed as traditional medicine.
Restaurants in many parts of China are known to serve dishes like bat soup (with the whole bat inside), soup made with tiger testicles, or civet body parts palm tree.
Fried cobra, braised bear paw, tiger bone wine are also on the menu at high-end restaurants.
The slum wildlife markets are home to rats, cats, snakes and many bird species, including critically endangered species.
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The notion of “yewei” (literally “wild tastes” in Chinese) is a terminology common throughout China that culturally conveys a mixture of adventure, daring, curiosity and privilege, “said an investigator of a a large international agency that has conducted several wildlife trade investigations in China.
Products from wildlife are also used in many traditional Chinese medicines, mainly because they are believed to have healing powers to treat various conditions, such as male impotence, arthritis and gout.
The demand for pangolin scales for such drugs has almost wiped out the animal in China and the pangolin has now become the most poached wildlife in other parts of the world as well.
The unsustainable use of rhino horn for traditional Chinese medicine is another example of how this practice has made the animal an endangered species.
All this happens when it is estimated that more than 70% of emerging infections in humans originate from animals, especially wild animals.
The epidemic has brought to light the wildlife trade in China, which has already been criticized by conservation groups for pushing a number of species to the brink of extinction.
Following this latest epidemic, Chinese authorities have temporarily banned the trade in wildlife to help prevent the spread of the virus.
But environmentalists take this opportunity to demand a permanent ban.
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The viruses causing Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) are also believed to originate from bats, but are believed to have entered humans via civets and camels. , respectively, according to WHO officials.
“We are in contact with wild species and their habitats that we did not know before,” said Dr Ben Embarek, Department of Nutrition and Food Safety, World Health Organization (WHO), to the BBC. ).
“So we have a number of new diseases linked to new contact between humans and previously unknown viruses, bacteria and parasites.”
A recent analysis of some 32,000 known terrestrial vertebrate species has shown that around 20% of them are bought and sold on the world market, legally or illegally.
This represents more than 5,500 species of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians.
The illegal wildlife trade is estimated at around $ 20 billion and is the fourth largest illegal trade after drugs, people smuggling and counterfeiting.
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“This health crisis should serve as a wake-up call,” said the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in a statement, “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 “.
However, the Chinese government has made it clear that the ban will be temporary.
“The breeding, transportation or sale of all wildlife is prohibited from the date of the announcement until the national epidemic is over,” said a directive issued jointly by three government agencies. .
Beijing announced a similar ban during the 2002 SARS epidemic.
But environmentalists say a few months after the announcements, the authorities were lenient and the wildlife market rebounded in China.
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In September of this year, Beijing is hosting a major global meeting on natural and biological resources, known as the Convention on Biological Diversity.
According to an intergovernmental report published last year, one million species are threatened with extinction – more than ever in the history of humanity.
In the aftermath of the virus’s appearance, editorials in state-controlled Chinese media denounced the country’s uncontrolled wildlife market.
“This is an opportunity to put an end to the possession, breeding, domestication and use of wild animals, not only for meat but also for traditional medicine,” said Debbie Banks, from the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency, which has conducted major wildlife surveys in China.
According to experts, the appearance of avian flu has contributed to the conservation of many bird species in the wild.
They also highlight the success of China’s import ban on ivory – after years of international pressure to save elephants from extinction.
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However, they stress that the ban and regulation of wildlife products must be global, not just in China.
“But as the largest market for wildlife products, China can certainly lead the way,” they say.
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