Illegal wildlife trade in the face of Covid-19: Emerging lessons


By Nqobizitha Ndlovu-Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association


The first quarter of the year has seen the outbreak and fight against the COVID-19 epidemic eclipse all world issues. The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the disease a pandemic on 11 March 2020, and currently it has infected over 2 million and killed over 133, 000 people globally. Governments were called to take urgent steps to curb the spread of the disease. While the major focus has been the effects of the disease and the efforts to curb its spread, the origins story remains a mystery and uncertain. What is however certain to the public is that sometime towards the end of 2019 at Huanan seafood market, Wuhan in China, a person was infected by the corona virus from an animal. There seems to be scientific consensus that the virus probably originated in bats. Scientists opine that the bats passed the virus to an intermediary animal, which then passed it to humans. This happened in the same way that the SARS virus moved from horseshoe bats to cat-like civets before infecting humans.

However, there is uncertainty about the identity of the intermediary animal which passed the virus to humans. Various reports and news bulletins have alleged that the pangolin, the most illegally traded mammal in the world, prized for its meat and scales, is the animal which passed the virus to humans. While the uncertainty remains on the identity of the intermediary animal, it is certain that the virus which is currently devastating the world originated from a wildlife market famous for both legal and illegal wildlife trade. Amidst the gloom of crumbling world economies, health systems and deaths, one positive effect of the pandemic is that it has drawn the attention of the world to the global problem of illegal wildlife trade. This paper seeks to highlight that illegal wildlife trade is not just a global criminal and conservation problem, but it is also a biosecurity and public health issue.

The link between illegal wildlife trade and COVID-19

Illegal wildlife trade is the unlawful harvest of and trade in live animals or parts and products derived from them[1]. The industry is estimated to be a multi-billion-dollar business rivalling global crimes such as drug and weapons trade.  Illegal wildlife trade is thus one of the global problems pushing several wildlife species towards extinction. Thousands of species which include pangolins, rhinoceros, and tigers, are being pushed towards extinction due to the unstainable and illegal wildlife trade.  The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) has brought together 183 nations to combat the illegal and unsustainable wildlife trade through a uniform regulatory regime and increased coordination on a global scale[2]. Despite the global efforts in the fight against illegal wildlife trade, Chinese demand for wildlife products continue to drive the trade. China provides the largest market for illegal wildlife trade and this market continued to thrive until the outbreak of the corona virus. The corona virus has brought to the spotlight Chinese wildlife trade laws and its wildlife farming industry which was valued at $74 billion before the ban on wildlife trade. The policy and legal shift of the Chinese government on wildlife trade laws (with the latest policy pronouncement being of the 24 February 2020) is directly linked to the corona virus timeline[3].

The origins story of Covid-19 identifies Huanan seafood market, Wuhan in China as the epicentre of the pandemic. Huanan seafood market is one of several Chinese wet markets where both live and dead animals are sold in crowded outdoor stalls. They are called wet markets because the slaughtering and skinning of animals is done in the market in the presence of customers. While the trade in live animals in these markets was legal in terms of Chinese domestic law, these markets provided a thriving market for illegal wildlife trade. The Wildlife Conservation Society noted that due to poor regulation, the live animal markets created a hub and cover for a thriving parallel illegal wildlife trade. In recognition of the legal and enforcement gaps in the regulation of wildlife trade, the Chinese government proceeded to ban the buying, selling, and eating of wild animals in February 2020. The Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party captured the ban in illegal wildlife trade in a statement thus, “It is necessary to strengthen market supervision, resolutely ban and severely crack down on illegal wildlife markets and trade, and control major public health risks from the source”.[4] The ban on wildlife live trade has crippled the Chinese wildlife farming industry valued at $74 billion.

Illegal wildlife trade, public health and food safety

Another emerging lesson from the COVID-19 pandemic is that illegal wildlife trade is not just an issue of conservation. It is also a public health and food safety and standards issue which WHO identified as a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern” or “PHEIC”. Prior to the outbreak of the corona virus, illegal wildlife trade was criticised based on its unsustainability which results in the extinction of species. The international and national legal frameworks adopted a conservationist approach towards combating illegal wildlife trade. Further, animal rights advocates criticised both legal and illegal wildlife trade on the grounds of cruelty to animals. In wet markets such as Huanan seafood market, animals are confined in small cages in crowded lanes and are slaughtered through methods which induce suffering and cruelty to the animals.

The outbreak of COVID-19 has however also brought to the fore issues of food safety and standards and public health associated with illegal wildlife trade. In China, the pandemic has already provided impetus for law reform. The ban of wildlife trade in China is linked to issues of public health. Further, the pending amendments to the Chinese Wildlife Protection Law includes matters of biosecurity and public health. Thus, COVID-19 presents an exceptional opportunity to address wildlife trade. Law reform is one of the critical areas in addressing illegal wildlife trade. Countries like Zimbabwe who are undergoing a review process of wildlife laws and policies have thus a unique opportunity to effectively address illegal wildlife trade not only from a sustainable wildlife management perspective but also from a biosecurity and public health perspective.

The pandemic has highlighted the risk of animal borne diseases mutating to human beings arising out of illegal wildlife trade. Effective food safety and control systems are critical to protect consumers’ health. Lack of effective food safety controls may result in the outbreak of diseases and pandemics like the corona virus. The regulation gaps in the legal wildlife trade industry in China coupled with a thriving parallel market of illegal wildlife trade have resulted in a global pandemic. While several countries have been quick to invoke or enact public health laws and regulations in response to the corona virus, it may be an issue of closing the doors after the horse has bolted. However, it is hoped that one of the major lessons of this pandemic is that illegal wildlife trade is not just a threat to the extinction of wildlife species. It may and it is now proving to be a serious threat to the very existence and survival of mankind.

Illegal wildlife trade, Wildlife communities’ livelihoods and COVID-19

Illegal wildlife trade is not only at the top of the international conservation agenda,[5] it is also at the apex of the development agenda. The World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) initial impact assessment of COVID-19 on tourism estimates that the global international tourist arrivals could decline between 20-30%, translating into a loss of US$ 30 to 50 billion in spending by international visitors.[6] The negative impact of COVID-19 on tourism revenue has major repercussions on conservation and wildlife dependent communities. For developing countries like Zimbabwe, wildlife is the major driver of the tourism industry which accounts for a sizeable contribution towards the GDP. In Zimbabwe, the Transitional Stabilisation Programme (TSP) identifies the tourism industry as a key economic pillar. Further, wildlife is critical for the livelihoods of rural communities. Tourism and trophy hunting are the two major revenue generating channels for communities across Africa.[7] In Zimbabwe, tourism revenue is critical for both conservation efforts and community livelihoods. While the revenue generated by the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority is ploughed back to the conservation effort, tourism revenues are also a critical source of livelihoods for communities under the CAMPFIRE model.

Due to travel restrictions as a result of the pandemic, the tourism industry stands to suffer huge economic loses. The lack of tourism revenue may affect the ability of Parks Authorities to fight illegal wildlife trade. Further, many communities who are experiencing insecurity from the loss of income generated from tourists, may resort to illegal wildlife trade as a means of survival and sustenance. Anecdotal evidence from wildlife dependent communities, like the Kanyemba fishing communities in Mbire District, suggests that the communities are facing food insecurity due to the corona virus restrictions. As a result of the COVID-19 health guidelines, the fishermen are restricted to two personnel per fishing boat. This negatively affects productivity which results in increased poverty and food insecurity. The Chairperson of the Ngwena Fishing Cooperative summed up the challenges thus: “COVID-19 is negatively affecting household food security for community members here in Kanyemba who depend on Zambezi river for fish. There are no butcheries here and we depend on fish for protein. There is no electricity so we cannot store food”.


  • The fight against illegal wildlife trade should be a global issue. The markets, trade routes and sources of illegal wildlife are global. Effective responses to the problem should thus go beyond the national jurisdictions.
  • An integrated approach to combating illegal wildlife trade is critical. This should not only involve conservationists, but it is a problem which has public health implications which has the potential to bring down world economies.
  • Public education and awareness targeting both the supply and demand communities are critical. Reducing public demand of wildlife products is central in the fight against illegal wildlife trade. Public education campaigns should not only tell people about how the wildlife trade (both legal and illegal) harms endangered species, but also its public health implications.
  • Addressing corruption is critical in combating wildlife trade. While the trade in protected species is highly regulated under international law, the world market in illegal wildlife products continues to grow and thrive. Corruption is the main driver behind illegal trafficking and trade in wildlife.
  • Legal reforms and strengthening the capacity of the criminal justice systems is critical. This involves reviewing wildlife laws, as well as training and capacitating law enforcement agents, the national prosecution authorities and the judiciary on wildlife crimes.
  • Implementing resilience livelihoods programmes in rural wildlife dependent communities to provide viable options of livelihood in case of major shocks like pandemics, natural disasters and economic depression.








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