Caged pangolins for sale in markets: EVGENY LEBEDEV reveals grotesque abuse in Asia and Africa

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Tigers are crammed into filthy cages in Laos. Blood-soaked bats are for sale on market stalls in Indonesia. And pangolin carcasses are found in their tens of thousands around the world, butchered for their supposedly medicinal properties.

It is now one year since the World Health Organisation declared a Covid-19 pandemic, but we have made no progress in preventing the next catastrophic virus.

Over the past year, my newspaper, The Independent, has unearthed horrific examples of wildlife abuse in Asia and Africa, practices that are not only shameful but make the outbreak of another dangerous zoonotic virus – one jumping from animals to humans – extremely likely.

Take, for example, the illegal breeding of rare animals such as lions and tigers across Eastern Asia. They are kept in obscenely cruel conditions – in filthy cages, confined to tight spaces – and are often visibly inbred.

Market in misery: A caged pangolin which is destined for slaughter in Indonesia. We have made no progress in preventing the next catastrophic virus, writes Evgeny Lebedev

Many are destined for export to China, where criminal gangs exploit porous borders and where legal loopholes allow these practices to go unpunished.

The key lesson of the pandemic was best illustrated to me this month by President Paul Kagame of Rwanda.

His country’s safeguarding of the critically endangered mountain gorilla has yielded huge benefits in the form of vital tourism revenue. It has ensured development and jobs for local communities.

This ‘one health’ outlook – with the wellbeing of nature intimately linked to the health of humanity – must be carried forward.

Since last summer, our Stop The Illegal Wildlife Trade campaign has been calling for further action.

We have exposed the criminal gangs behind wholesale elimination of species across Africa and Asia, we have highlighted the gaps in legislation that allow further abuse of wildlife, and we have shed light on the organisations doing vital work protecting nature.

We should be gravely concerned about the proliferation of wildlife farms across East and South-East Asia. Scientists on the WHO’s mission to attempt to get some answers from China on the origin of the Covid virus believe there is strong potential wildlife farms are involved in the chain of transmission. Countries such as China, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Indonesia must do more to close their wildlife farms, captive breeding operations and wildlife markets.

Given the events and repercussions of the past year, the illegal wildlife trade should be treated as no less than a threat to our national security

The work of Freeland, an anti-poaching organisation and our charity partner, and of Space For Giants, the conservation group of which I am patron, is crucial in strengthening judicial systems to make sure wildlife criminals are punished. 

Some steps have been taken by the Chinese government to tighten legislation around wildlife trade since the outbreak of this pandemic, but not nearly enough has been done to tackle this £53 billion industry.

After the SARS epidemic of 2002, the Chinese temporarily tightened restrictions around the wildlife trade, exterminating close to a million animals – before loosening rules again under immense pressure from those farms and traders who make such huge profits from this unimaginably risky practice. They cannot make this mistake again.

Of course, the recent WHO mission was not given a fair crack of the whip in investigating the markets where many believe the virus originated.

This cover-up should not have been allowed to happen.

It is likely that the Chinese medical authorities have more information, but I fear it will not be released if it incriminates them or their previously lax regulation of wildlife consumption.

China will host the global Convention on Biodiversity in October. It must use its position to commit itself to a permanent ban on the sale, consumption and farming of exotic wildlife – for any reason, including so-called medicinal – and encourage other countries to follow suit. 

The key lesson of the pandemic was best illustrated to me this month by President Paul Kagame (pictured in 2019) of Rwanda, writes Evgeny Lebedev

The illegal wildlife trade should not be seen just as a criminal problem, or even a health problem. Given the events and repercussions of the past year, it should be treated as no less than a threat to our national security.

With that in mind, I laud the WHO’s ‘One World, One Health’ movement for its clarity in linking the stability of the natural world with that of ours.

I urge the British Government to follow suit by treating the condition of our environment as an issue of public health and security.

There is a small minority of people who profit from gambling with our safety in this way.

We are now awake to the immensity of this risk, and are all too conscious of what failure would mean.

Only zero tolerance of the illegal wildlife trade will stop the even greater tragedy that, without strong action, is certain to come.

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