Wildlife Plays a Minor Role in Zoonotic Diseases


The CPW is a voluntary partnership of 14 international organizations with substantive mandates and programmes to promote the sustainable use and conservation of wildlife resources. Established in 2013, the CPW’s mission is to increase cooperation and coordination on sustainable wildlife management issues among its members and partners, to promote the sustainable management of terrestrial vertebrate wildlife in all biomes and geographic areas, contributing to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, as well as to human food security, livelihoods, and well-being.

The Covid-19 pandemic provided anti-use activists and lobbyists with a platform to trade in wildlife, on the grounds that this is a potential channel for diseases to be transmitted to humans from wild animals. The assumption was made that Covid-19 originally infected bats, and from there was transmitted to humans, perhaps via some other animal species that enhanced the virulence of the disease. In fact, the true reservoir of Covid-19 has not yet been unequivocally identified.

The Collaborative Partnership on Sustainable Wildlife Management (CPW) held its Third Wildlife Forum on 26 and 27 September in Budapest, Hungary. Over 300 participants joined the meeting, both in-person and virtually from around the world (because of Covid-19 travel constraints). Delegates participated in four thematic sessions on (a) the of wildlife to food security and livelihoods; (b) zoonotic diseases and the One Health approach; (c) global targets on wildlife trade, offtake, and hunting; and (d) the management of human-wildlife conflicts (HWCs). Most readers of African Hunting Gazette will be interested in these deliberations, which can be found online at enb.iisd.org/biodiversity/CPW/wildlife-forum-2021

Some of the key messages from the Forum include the following:

  • Landscapes are critical to provisioning food systems and current global food supply systems could not hope to meet global needs without the contributions made by wild foods;
  • Simplistic calls to end wildlife use and trade will not address zoonotic disease emergence and may threaten conservation;
  • Data and narratives on zoonoses and wildlife trade are confusing and poorly analyzed;
  • The role of wildlife as a proximate and direct cause of human disease is overestimated;
  • Human-Wildlife Conflict (HWC) is a and sustainable development challenge;
  • Conflict takes place between people over wildlife, as problems arise when different groups of people disagree what to do about wildlife.

Space does not allow for a lengthy coverage of all the interesting discussions that took place at the Forum; full details are at the online link above. What really caught my attention was the excellent presentation by Dr Richard Kock, Royal Veterinary College, UK, and IUCN SSC Wildlife Health Specialist Group. He addressed wildlife management in the context of wildlife trade, highlighting the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s situation analysis, noting that wildlife in situ is rarely a source of human disease. Stressing that narratives ‘build agendas’ for human and health agencies and NGOs, and are often the drivers of very large financial incentives, he noted that the risk of infectious disease from wildlife is actually negligible. He stressed that the risk of zoonoses from the wildlife trade is very limited, and that it is domestic animals and industrialized agriculture that have ‘crushed nature’. A video of his presentation and slides may be found on the Internet here:  https://www.traffic.org/news/experts-on-sustainable-wildlife-management-discuss-opportunities-in-the-post-2020-global-biodiversity-framework/

For me, the highlights of Dr Kock’s presentation included the following:

  • The World Health Organization’s definition: “A zoonosis is any disease or infection that is naturally transmissible from vertebrate animals to humans”. In other words, there has to be a reservoir of a pathogen in an animal host.
  • Zoonoses from wildlife reservoirs are extremely rare. Zoonoses from domestic animals on the other hand are much more likely. Dr Kock gives the example of rabies, where 99% of human infections are from domestic dogs, and only a handful of cases every year from wild animals. In South Africa one of the wild hosts of rabies is the Yellow Mongoose Cynictis pencicillata but humans very rarely get bitten by a rabid wild mongoose.
  • Meat is an important source of zoonoses, but such pathogens are around 3,000 times more likely to come from domestic animals rather than from wild species, which do not even feature on a global basis.
  • Calls for banning the trade in wildlife are based on misconceptions. In fact there is very limited evidence to support the perceived risk of zoonoses or emerging pathogens from wildlife or wildlife trade.
  • According to official figures from CITES, the majority of animals legally traded in the world are captive-bred primates, and these are mainly used in medical intended to improve human health. Do those who want to ban the wildlife trade really want to ban advances in the medical sciences?
  • Humans have nurtured domestic animals for food, and today 96% of the mammal biomass on the planet is made up of domestic species. These domestic animals have ‘crowded out’ wildlife in most parts of the world.
  • Coronaviruses have afflicted humans for a long time, and in 1892 one such virus that probably came from cattle caused a pandemic that killed some three people. Nobody seems to remember that!
  • MERS is a coronavirus that infects humans; its reservoir is the camel, which is increasingly bred and raised in close proximity to humans.
  • The potential for the spread of emerging pathogens is greatly enhanced by our ‘One World’ that includes a lot of air travel.

Most hunters will be pleased with the conclusions drawn by Dr Kock in his presentation. Calls for the banning of hunting and the wildlife trade on the grounds of disease transmission or emerging pathogens are based on misinformation or the deliberate distortion of facts. The role of hunters in Africa, where we still have large populations of wild animals, is good for our animals and for our African people. And in places where wild animals can hold their own against domestic livestock because they offer a better financial return, then we are well on our way to securing the of Africa.

Dr John Ledger is a past Director of the Endangered Wildlife Trust, now a consultant, writer and teacher on the environment, energy and wildlife; he is a columnist for the African Hunting Gazette. He lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. John.Ledger@wol.co.za