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A report from the United Nations Environment Programme and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) warns that zoonotic diseases are increasing and will continue to do so without action to protect wildlife and preserve the environment. 

The experts blame the rise in diseases such as COVID-19, which most likely originated from a bat, on high demand for animal protein, unsustainable agricultural practices and the climate crisis, saying that this alters the way that animals and humans interact with one another. 

Neglected zoonotic diseases kill two million people a year, they add. These diseases include Ebola, West Nile virus, SARS, anthrax, bovine tuberculosis and rabies. 

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What Does the Report Say?

Inger Andersen, under-secretary general and executive director of the UN Environment Programme, says, “In the last century we have seen at least six major outbreaks of novel coronaviruses. Over the last two decades and before COVID-19, zoonotic diseases caused economic damage of $100bn (£80bn).” COVID-19 is set to cost the global economy USD$9tn (£7.2tn) over two years.

She adds, “These are often communities with complex development problems, high dependence on livestock and proximity to wildlife.” 

Meat production, for instance, has increased by 260% in the last 50 years.

“Dams, irrigation and factory farms are linked to 25% of infectious diseases in humans. Travel, transport and food supply chains have erased borders and distances. Climate change has contributed to the spread of pathogens,” Andersen says. 

The report gives governments 10 recommendations on how to prevent future outbreaks, including strengthening monitoring and regulation practices associated with zoonotic diseases, including food systems, incentivising sustainable land management practices and managing landscapes that enhance sustainable co-existence of agriculture and wildlife. 

“To prevent future outbreaks, we must become much more deliberate about protecting our natural environment,” Andersen says.

“The science is clear that if we keep exploiting wildlife and destroying our ecosystems, then we can expect to see a steady stream of these diseases jumping from animals to humans in the years ahead,” she adds.

The report singles out Africa as a potential ‘source of important solutions to quell future outbreaks’ owing to the continent’s experience with and response to a number of zoonotic epidemics, including most recently the Ebola outbreak. 

ILRI Director General, Jimmy Smith, says, “The situation on the continent today is ripe for intensifying existing zoonotic diseases and facilitating the emergence and spread of new ones. But with their experiences with Ebola and other emerging diseases, African countries are demonstrating proactive ways to manage disease outbreaks. They are applying, for example, novel risk-based rather than rule-based approaches to disease control, which are best suited to resource-poor settings, and they are joining up human, animal and environment expertise in proactive One Health initiatives.” One Health approaches unite public health, veterinary and environmental expertise as the best way for preventing and responding to zoonotic disease outbreaks and pandemics.

The report was released on World Zoonoses Day, observed by research institutions on July 6, which commemorates the work of French biologist Louis Pasteur. On July 6 1885, Pasteur successfully administered the first vaccine against rabies.

Meanwhile, Chinese reports say that a city in Inner Mongolia has confirmed a case of the bubonic plague, with a second suspected case. It is unclear how the first patient became infected, however the second suspected case, a 15-year old boy, had apparently been in contact with a marmot hunted by a dog, a tweet from The Global Times said. 

The government in China is offering buyouts for animals on wildlife farms, and to help farmers change their agricultural practices, in an effort to reduce the consumption of wild animals. This step could have big implications for the management of wildlife in China in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, experts say.

The novel coronavirus, which has affected more than 82,000 people in China and nearly 5 million people worldwide, is believed to have originated from a wet market selling wildlife in Wuhan, China. On Feb. 24, the Chinese government responded by banning the trade and consumption of wild animals, and on April 9, it released a draft list of animals that could be legally farmed for food and clothing. The majority of listed species were domesticated animals like pigs, cattle and sheep, although it had a separate category for “special livestock” such as reindeer, alpacas and emus that could be farmed for food, and minks, Arctic foxes and raccoon dogs that could be farmed for fur.

Some wild animals may continue to be legally farmed, but the Chinese government will offer payment to farmers of at least 14 wild species , including king ratsnakes (Elaphe carinata), bamboo rats (Rhizomyini spp.), Asian palm civet cats (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus), Chinese muntjac deer (Muntiacus spp.), and Chinese bamboo partridges (Bambusicola thoracicus). The highest level of compensation is allotted for the Chinese muntjac deer — 2,457 yuan ($346) per individual —  while each Chinese bamboo partridge will be bought for 57 yuan ($8).

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china buyouts wildlife farmers
A caged civet cat (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

While this buyout agreement was initially presented to farmers in Hunan and Jiangxi provinces, where the majority of wildlife farming takes place, farmers in other provinces, including Guangdong, Yunnan and Guangxi, are being offered similar deals, according to Steve Blake, China’s chief representative at WildAid.

“There are several thousand wildlife breeding operations in each province, especially in some of the less economically developed provinces in the northeast and southern China,” Blake told Mongabay. “These operations are obviously on varying scales and for different uses, but the numbers are pretty staggering. The industry is valued at tens of billions of dollars annually. The fact that China is moving so quickly to clean up such a vast and complicated industry is really astounding.”

The buyouts aren’t necessarily compulsory, but wildlife farmers will face obligations, according to Peter Li, China policy specialist of the Humane Society International (HSI).

“Buyout is a way for the breeders to exit the farming which was encouraged by the government,” Li told Mongabay in an email. “If the farmers do not want to accept the buyout arrangements, they are completely free to stop the farming operation by themselves. However, according to the buyout plan, the farmers cannot farm these animals for food any more.”

More species may be added to the buyout plan, which is only in draft form right now, Blake said.

“This first list of 14 species is the first batch of species to be listed for compensation, probably because they are more commonly bred,” he said. “Since it’s listed as ‘the first batch,’ then there should be more to follow.”

Some farmers will lose their livelihoods, but they will receive government assistance to help them transition to growing vegetables, fruits, teas, or herbs for traditional Chinese medicine, or to even farm other animal species like pigs and chickens.

“Many of these farmers were operating these breeding facilities as local poverty alleviation projects, and so this transition for them into other production is a continuance of these poverty alleviation projects,” Blake said. “These are ongoing and not just a one-time deal. But again, this definitely varies by location, county by county.”

Once the animals are purchased by the government, they face one of three fates, according to HSI. In certain circumstances, they will be released back into the wild, but most animals will be allotted to industries such as zoos and research facilities, or simply culled — and this has animal welfare advocates concerned.

“Culling programs in China and other countries in Asia can also involve truly barbaric methods such as live burial, and so we really hope to see the Chinese authorities mandating against such cruelty,” Li said in a statement. “The wild animal breeding farms and factories facing closure and transition must not sacrifice animal welfare in an effort to implement the new changes.”

There is also a big loophole in the buyout plan: farmers will be able to continue farming wild animals for traditional Chinese medicine, the fur industry or entertainment purposes. In the province of Guangxi, snake farmers, with the help of the government, are already repurposing their animals for the medicine and beauty industries, which will prevent them from having to shut down their farms, according to one news source.

While the buyout plan leaves room for improvement, both Li and Blake say they believe it can help lead China away from wildlife consumption, and promote better management of wildlife in the country.

“By subsidising wildlife breeders to transition to alternative livelihoods, these provinces are demonstrating global leadership on this issue, which other provinces and countries must now follow,” Li said. “Chinese farmers not only have an opportunity to leave a trade that poses a direct threat to human health — something that can no longer be tolerated in light of COVID — but also to transition to more humane and sustainable livelihoods such as growing plant foods popular in Chinese cuisine.”

“These new regulations provide much needed clarity on what is permissible and improvements to the permitting process,” Blake said. “There has also been notable concern throughout society here for the breeders affected by this, so this compensation scheme is also very important to help them transition industries rather than revert to trying to sell these products illegally.

“The amount of attention and resolve that the government, media, and society in China have paid to the wildlife consumption issue in the wake of this pandemic is unprecedented,” Blake added. “There’s not only much improved policy measures resulting from this, but also I think public perceptions on the need to end some of this risky wildlife consumption is going to be long-lasting.”

Featured image by: KL Wong

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Elizabeth Claire Alberts, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org.

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