WEBINAR: Dr. Masha Vorontsova on COVID-19, Climate, and the Wildlife Trade

What follows is a summary of a webinar discussion with marine biologist and Track Two advisor Dr. Masha Vorontsova on the intersection of COVID-19, climate change, and the wildlife trade held on June 10, 2020. Watch the recording in full.


There are 1.2 million species of fauna known to scientists on the planet. Of these, 5,500 are mammals, 10,000 birds, 10,000 reptiles, 15,000 amphibians and 80,000 fish. The total number of animal species on the planet may be upwards of 50 million. We know viruses are linked to wildlife and wildlife is in turn linked to us. There are one million species of viruses just on vertebrate animals; of that million 320,000 virus species are in mammals. It was well known to specialists that these viruses might leak to humans. It was no surprise for epidemiologists and virologists when the Coronavirus pandemic hit the human population. It had been predicted by the scientific community but regretfully neglected by government officials for decades.


Civic society is ready for transformative change; three months of shelter at home has provided time for thought and reflection on the world's affairs - in politics, economics, industries. The state of the environment, and the connection between how we treat the planet and how it in turn treats us has become more pressing during the pandemic. Let's use the momentum this time has created to reverse population and consumption growth, to move from estimating wellbeing by GDP towards the wellbeing of all life on the planet. Today Earth is suffering from the loss of biodiversity: species are declining quickly - but perhaps more critically, their habitat is declining quickly. Biodiversity offers stability to ecosystems. Human development including urban sprawl, monoculture agriculture (palm oil, wheat, etc.), deforestation, livestock ranching and simple human population growth is consuming vast tracts of land that was home to a resplendent variety of flora and fauna species is being reduced each day. There is a movement abreast to preserve 30% of undeveloped wildlands and 30% of the oceans for nature by 2030. If achieved, this might help save the planet.



As human populations encroach upon wildlife habitat, wildlife gets closer to humans. And humans can extract wildlife easily as roads and transport hubs are built through wildlands.


Additionally, trade in wildlife (legal and illegal), generally estimated in the hundreds of billions annually, is putting great pressure on the thousands of species currently traded across the globe. These include thousands of charismatic species used in pet, medicine, arts and meat trades.


As habitats shrink, animals live in closer quarters and distribute diseases amongst themselves more readily. Then in wildlife markets, prevalent in many Asian countries, cages of bats sit upon, snakes, pangolins and other animals that are purchased by local populations for food. Viruses that are asymptomatic in wild animals are communicated through these traded animals to humans. And humans, traveling across oceans and continents, communicate these viruses to one another - and sometimes back to other wildlife species whose cell receptors might potentially allow the coronavirus to penetrate cells. Coronavirus infects humans, it is known to infects cats (wild and domestic), and due to the similarity of host cell receptors can potentially spread back to the wild and infect toothed whales, primates including Apes among others. Wild animals are trafficked to supply private "collections", wildlife farms, zoos and others. And through Wildlife trafficking and the pet trade diseases can readily spread.


The worldwide trade in animals and their parts first came to scientists' attention as a large problem in the 1960s. In 1972 the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) was adopted. Today 183 countries are parties to CITES. Interpol has a special unit for combating wildlife trade. It has been effective in certain circumstances but the trade, legal and illegal, continues. Too often exceptions to policies end up stimulating black (illegal) markets as they attempt to solve problems.


There is hope that these conventions (others include Conventions on biodiversity, Convention on Migratory species, International Whaling Commission etc.) and the increased awareness brought by this Coronavirus tragedy that has affected all humans may help change the dangerous trajectory that has developed, particularly during the last 50 years. This is a time of pause and reflection. And by getting behind the global efforts to address the wanton extraction of natural resources, the declines can be reversed in all but a very few cases.


A fundamental system-wide reorganization of economic, technologic and social factors is needed. Without this fundamental change our next generations will experience the collapse of the environment on the planet. We need to move back from the cliff of environmental collapse to stabilize and rewild enough of earth's surface to assure health across the planet in the future.


This new paradigm must set goals, values and it must promote social and environmental responsibility for individuals, communities, industries and nations. Think briefly how much some forethought about the environment and the wildlife trade in the instance of Coronavirus might have saved so many resources, so many lives. And what if all the funds lost to the pandemic had been available through the last decade for environmental protection and biodiversity restoration?



A few actions in our daily lives can have large impacts:

  • replanting indigenous plants

  • rewilding our wildlands and restoring landscapes

  • consuming less animal product and NO rare species

  • not adopting exotic pets

  • not acquiring wild animal souvenirs

  • fighting against the practice of using animals as traditional medicine, or otherwise

  • eating sustainably sourced fish, meats, poultry. And eating less animal products.

  • planting your own vegetable garden or buying from local sustainable farms

Following is a list of selected organizations that are working to reverse the declines in wildlife we are seeing. We also include resources to help everyone learn more. Our biggest hope is that wildlife markets come to an end, that wildlife trade, legal and illegal be dramatically reduced and that we all help assure that 30% of our oceans and terrestrial areas be protected by 2030.


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