“The next pandemic will come within a decade,” a panel of the G20 international forum concluded in July. Echoing warnings that scientists have been issuing for years, the panel cautioned that new zoonoses — infectious diseases stemming from animals — are going to emerge more frequently, harm our economy more often and kill more people.
This “era of pandemics” is terrifying — and it’s largely of our own making. As more people encroach on wildlife habitat and interact with more species, we put ourselves at greater risk of new diseases emerging that can infect people.
But our exploitation of nature and wildlife isn’t just making us sick. It’s also fueling the ongoing extinction crisis. In 2020, a panel of the world’s foremost scientists estimated that around 1 million species are threatened with extinction.
Yet despite warnings, the necessary change hasn’t come. Perhaps the threat is too incomprehensible. When you pull at a thread here or there it doesn’t seem to have an effect. But if you keep pulling, you may end up unraveling an entire sweater. It’s the same for nature, but we risk unraveling the very fabric of life that we depend on.
We need a response that simultaneously addresses the threat of future pandemics and the extinction crisis in a bold new way.
Conservationists, including our organization, on Aug. 3 petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to use their authorities to ban trade in birds and mammals. The idea is to reduce the risk of an outbreak and protect wildlife from extinction.
A ban might sound extreme, but COVID-19 is estimated to have cost the world more than $5.6 trillion in lost GDP in 2020 alone. Wildlife trade, excluding seafood, timber and plants, generates less than $40 billion a year on average. That doesn’t come close to balancing out the massive damage — financial and otherwise — that pandemics fueled by the wildlife trade create.
Many of the worst disease outbreaks of the past 40 years, such as HIV, Ebola, SARS, avian and swine flu — and likely COVID-19 itself — have been linked to wildlife. As more people exploit wildlife — capturing, caging, transporting and stressing animals that then shed and pick up diseases — we get closer to the next pandemic.
We can reduce this threat by being proactive. Yet so far the U.S. response has been wholly reactive. The CDC started regulating African rodent imports only after monkeypox broke out in the U.S. in 2003. The Fish and Wildlife Service regulated salamander species only after their trade was tied to the spread a deadly fungus.
Making up 20% of the global wildlife market, the U.S. is a major consumer of wildlife. We import more than 224 million live animals a year. Our enormous appetite for pets, décor, fashion, unique meats, unproven medicines and other items drives the wildlife exploitation that causes zoonotic diseases that emerge as people capture, process, trade and sell wildlife.
Given our outsized role, the U.S. cannot continue to react to diseases after they emerge. Nor can we naively think that we can predict from where and which species the next outbreak will arise: There are near-infinite possibilities. Even the best surveillance system can’t detect what we don’t know is a threat.
Our response needs to include curtailing risky activities, starting with the trade in live mammals and birds, since these two families pose the greatest risk of disease transfer to people.
Human health and the health of our planet are bound together, whether we like it or not. We have haphazardly tugged at nature’s threads for too long. If we care about the future, we have to confront the wildlife trade.