Ama Kudom-Agyemang’s thoughts….COVID-19 and wildlife: Experts welcome ban on global trade in wildlife, but not in favour

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  In his lifetime, Nana Yaw Amponsah was famous for his skills in hunting big game such as forest elephants, buffaloes and leopards. He was also celebrated beyond his village of Krabonsu near Kintampo in Ghana’s Bono East Region, for his prowess in using concoctions of herbs and bones of leopards to fortify people against all manner of misfortunes.

Nana Yaw Amponsah’s profession and lifestyle is still practiced by people in rural communities because it has become more lucrative, thanks to high demand by urban dwellers for lean, high-protein meat.

But now, all that might change because the world is currently experiencing massive changes in all spheres of life. So, welcome to the 21st century – the era of super high-level technology, incredible scientific feats, and sophisticated livelihoods at their peak alongside the clamour by sections of society for a return to more rudimentary lifestyles. And to a period when despite all the scientific high-tech advancement, the world is overwhelmed by COVID-19, aka coronavirus that has been and is devastating nations.

Since its outbreak five months ago in Wuhan, China, the global community has been grappling with how best to tackle this virus. With no specific, established cure identified yet, treatment is more or less of a trial and error procedure involving isolation and relieving symptoms with pain relievers, cough-syrup, rest and fluid intake – which is thankfully working for some.

Through it all, one thing stands out – that the outbreak of coronavirus has been due to increased human-wildlife contact. Extensive human exploitation of wildlife through hunting, trade, habitat degradation and urbanisation has enhanced the risks of dangerous viruses such as COVID-19 spilling over from animals to humans.

In response to this discovery and in a bid to minimise these risks, and possibly prevent future occurrences of such virus-related pandemics, 241 wildlife associated groups including the Zoological Society of London, WildAid, The Gorilla Foundation and International Fund for Animal Welfare, have called for a worldwide ban on live wildlife markets and their use in traditional medicines.

Some Ghanaian wildlife experts have welcomed this proposal, saying a ban on international trade in wildlife is in order. “We will be in favour of banning international trade in wildlife, because it brings in a lot of external funding, which induces over-exploitation,” says former Executive Director of the Wildlife Division of Ghana’s Forestry Commission, Yaw Ofori-Frimpong.

He did not support imposing a ban on local bush-meat trade or its consumption. “This is because Ghana’s livestock and poultry industry is not significantly developed, and the bulk of our animal protein is imported,” Mr. Ofori-Frimpong explained in an interview, noting that: “Until we have built our local livestock and poultry industry, it will be very difficult to stop the trade in bush-meat, since it is also part of the Ghanaian way of life”.

He observed that the eating of bush-meat itself may not constitute a health problem for Ghanaians, “since our food preparation, especially meat items, are subjected to long-term cooking at 100 degrees centigrade; and every step of the food preparation involves a lot of handwashing,” adding, “even until recently, all our major oral herbal medicines were boiled”.

For his part, the current Executive Director of Wildlife Division, Bernard Asamoah-Boateng, emphasised that “an abrupt ban on the consumption of bush-meat as a result of the of COVID-19 outbreak is not recommended for now”.

In an interview, he noted that currently, bush-meat plays significant roles in Ghanaian society.  “Bush-meat is currently harvested for meat and supports the nation’s food security, provides jobs for many in rural communities as well as medicines; and is a major ingredient in local socio-cultural ceremonies or festivals, which are all considered as integral components of the people’s socio-cultural lives,” he enumerated.

However, Mr. Asamoah-Boateng expressed concern about the alarming loss of biodiversity in the country, and is disturbed that unsustainable harvesting of wild animals is contributing to the loss. He admitted that the Division is overwhelmed with the situation. “Control of unsustainable hunting has been a headache for the Wildlife Division.  It is also extremely expensive and difficult policing both Protected Areas and Off-reserve Areas.”

Darly Boso of A ROCHA Ghana also agrees that implementing a ban on local bush-meat trade as a result of COVID-19 would be very difficult and not feasible, “because bush-meat is to local inland communities what fish is to coastal communities”. He also agreed that the Wildlife Division is currently overwhelmed, but attributed the problem to “a lack of sustainability mechanisms to be deployed for effective compliance of sector laws and regulations”.

Meanwhile, a study has established the outbreak of COVID-19 as being linked to close proximity between wildlife and people. Findings of the study, published in the journal ‘Proceedings of the Royal Society B’, highlight how the processes that create wildlife population declines and risk of extinction also enable the transmission of animal viruses to humans.

According to the lead author of the study and Project Director of USAID PREDICT, Christine Kreuder Johnson, “Spillover of viruses from animals is a direct result of our actions involving wildlife and their habitat. The consequence is they’re sharing their viruses with us. These actions simultaneously threaten species-survival and increase the risk of spillover”.

Ms. Johnson, who is Director of the EpiCentre for Disease Dynamics at the One Health Institute of the University of California’s Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, USA, asserts that: “In an unfortunate convergence of many factors, this brings about the kind of mess we’re in now”.

She cautioned people to pay attention to how they interact with wildlife and activities that bring humans and wildlife together, and stated: “We obviously don’t want pandemics of this scale. We need to find ways to co-exist safely with wildlife, as they have no shortage of viruses to give us”.

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