Hunting of wild animals for meat (Picture for representation purpose only). Photo courtesy: Raghuram R
As China grapples with the outbreak of the ‘novel Coronavirus 2019,’ leading to lockdown of 56 million people in the country and new cases emerging across the globe every day, several markets spread across the country, form a hotspot for such spillovers. And while the novel virus is believed to have emerged from a seafood market in Wuhan, China, experts aver that it is just a matter of time before the illegal wildlife meat markets spread across India give birth to our own ‘Corona’. In the Indian context, in addition to the smaller towns that have open meat markets, the big metros are also vulnerable to such diseases - Crawford Market in Mumbai, Galiff Street in Kolkata, Russell Market in Bangalore - the list is long. The outbreak of such disease in the metros can potentially affect several million people and be catastrophic in its consequences.
According to experts, increasing interaction or contact between humans and wildlife are one of the key drivers of disease outbreak. Disease from animals to humans can spread through various media including air, similar to how influenza is transmitted, or through saliva and other bodily fluids, following which some may mutate and become more difficult to contain and curb. If one thinks about it, wildlife trade, whether it is live or not, is a potential source for these diseases. For example, eating wild meat led to the outbreaks of EBOV, SARS-CoV, or the recent Wuhan virus. It is likely that a strain of the Ebola virus originated from bats in Guinea, and was transmitted to a two year old child, while a bat was being readied for the pot. Butchering, cutting, dressing and handling have a higher risk of disease transmission from wildlife than the sale or purchase of the butchered wild meat (Wolfe et al. 2004).
“Increasing interaction between human and wildlife reservoirs is one of the key drivers of emerging disease transmission. For example, cultural traditions of eating wild meat or bushmeat have led to the outbreaks of EBOV and SARS-CoV, as seen in the Ebola outbreak in West Africa 2014 and SARs outbreak in 2002 in Southern China. Studies also have shown a strong link between Biodiversity Hotspots and emerging infectious disease outbreaks. India has been classified as a mega-diversity nation due to its high biodiversity. However, a number of studies suggest that due to increasing population density, India is losing forests at a rapid rate especially in the north-east. This brings wildlife and humans in closer contact with each other risking a spillover of infectious disease from wildlife to humans,” says D Pilot Dovi, a research scholar studying human and wildlife disease interface in Nagaland.
There have been several hypotheses about the emergence and spread of certain zoonotic pathogens in the recent past. According to Abi Tamim Vanak, Fellow, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE), Bengaluru, the killing and consuming of wild animals that may lead to exposure either through consumption of raw or undercooked meat or through cuts and exposure to blood/bodily fluids in the processing of the meat can have resulted in the pathogens spilling over to humans.
Although we have hunted and eaten wild meat for hundreds of thousands of years, zoonotic disease outbreaks depend on a few factors including the nature of the pathogen and the scale of the trade. The problem specially arises when large-scale demand results in wildlife being transported to different corners of the globe. In fact, in the current globalized world, such diseases can potentially have a larger global footprint, making them a more severe threat than they would have been in the past. Moreover, when the pathogen is some kind of virus, it can show greater rates of mutation, and thus become more virulent in humans. This is of course a matter of chance, but the greater the demand, the more likely that such spillovers may result in the “wrong” kind of pathogen finding its way to humans. Moreover, the more species / individuals are together in stressed conditions, the more shedding can occur, giving rise to new viruses with new host spectrums.
“People in many places in India are unaware of the concept of zoonotic diseases. Moreover, the problem of zoonotic disease spread amplifies when it comes to a tropical country like India. With conducive weather conditions for a pathogen to thrive and multiply at a fast rate and rampant illegal wildlife meat market across the country, India’s vulnerability to zoonotic diseases is immense,” says Shreya Sethi, a research scholar from Mumbai, pursuing PhD in Wildlife Economics.
Monitor lizards being hunted for consumption (Picture for representation purpose only). Photo courtesy: WCS-India Archives
Wild meat still finds its way into many Indian homes, be it porcupine, monitor lizards, snakes, turtles, bats and rodents, albeit covertly. A severe lack of awareness of the repercussions of consuming wild meat, along with low enforcement action against wildlife crime are a cause for concern. Not only do these deplete our biodiversity, but even more worrying is the potential that they hold in spreading infectious disease, which may become a global epidemic.
“The illegal wildlife meat markets in India, whether real or virtual, are rampant. While at a policy level, people believe it is the charismatic species that are in danger, the grassroot level has a different picture to present. A lot of prey species are getting hunted regularly. Moreover, there is no research being done on such markets. The modus operandi of illegal meat markets in central India is different from north east. There is usually a person or a village that makes the hunt and the buyers are already fixed. It is mostly a surrounding village or a certain hotel in the area. Once the hunt is done, a few calls are made and the sale happens,” explains Shreya.
Superstition, tradition, a cheap source of protein, and lack of implementation of the law are some of the reasons behind such markets flourishing. There is an urgent need to address these issues in order to prevent the outbreak of lethal diseases.
“There is no laboratory or research institute with the facility or infrastructure in the region that can contain any future emerging disease outbreak. While public health monitoring in the country has achieved remarkable heights in the prevention of disease and improvement of health care, there is still hardly any data on the systematic study and monitoring of human and wildlife disease transmission interfaces in the country despite experiencing multiple episodes of an emerging disease outbreak. It is high time India cracks the whip on such illegal wildlife meat markets,” adds Pilot.
While challenges of disease outbreaks from wildlife are most definitely a concern world over, this is especially so in a populous country like India. The Novel Coronavirus has arrived as a timely warning of the impact of the illicit trade in wildlife. China has taken the first step in implementing a temporary ban on wildlife trade in the country. India must implement its laws more seriously if only to put its populace out of risk.
By Garima Prasher