COVID-19 is not the first infectious disease outbreak, and if we fail to understand its cause, it won’t be the last. TEDxMileHigh: Rise speaker George Wittemyer knows COVID-19 wasn’t caused by a lack of infectious disease knowledge. Rather, a lack of change in human behavior is to blame. This outbreak, and others before, are the consequences of dangerous human interaction with animals. The wildlife trade, legal or not, contributes to the spread of infectious diseases, and we need to change our behavior if we are to stop more pandemics in the future.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, infectious disease specialists were concerned but not surprised. If that’s the case, how did we still end up here? How were we not more prepared? While the global response, particularly in the U.S., was scattered, the true cause of the outbreak is far less political.

George Wittemyer spoke at our last virtual event. You can register for our next event, TEDxMileHigh: Vision on December 5th here.

Zoonotic Diseases

Simply put, zoonotic diseases are infectious diseases that are born in animals and transferred to humans. “These diseases jump from animals to people through interaction, particularly exposure to bodily fluids,” says Wittemyer. 

COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, and it isn’t the first one to cause an outbreak. We can trace outbreaks like Ebola, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and avian influenza back to animal-human interactionAccording to ScienceDirect, “wildlife are the source of at least 70% of all emerging diseases.”

We know these diseases originate from animals, and we know they spread to humans through interaction. We also know how to stop the spread. So, why do these diseases continue to pose a threat? Wittemyer answers this question in his talk. He argues that as humans, we perpetuate the spread of zoonotic diseases with our participation in the wildlife trade. Here’s why.

The Wildlife Trade Spillover

The wildlife trade market runs deep but is also vastly unknown. Mostly hidden in the shadows of the black market, its extent is far greater than some may realize. According to Dr. William Miller for OneGreenPlanet, “It is at least the fourth largest global illegal industry following drugs, human trafficking, and illegal arms.” In fact, this ScienceDirect study found, “11,569,796 individual live wild animals, representing 1,316 different species were exported from 189 different countries between 2012 and 2016.” 

That’s almost 12 million animals transferred from one country to another. The dark world of the illegal wildlife trade is barbaric, but the threat it poses to global human health is imminent and deadly.

“By moving animals around the world in stressful conditions, the wildlife trade is a key driver of zoonotic disease spillover.” – George Wittemeyer

The Birthplace of COVID-19

In his talk, Wittemeyer examines the birthplace of COVID-19: a wet market in Wuhan, China. “I’m not talking about lobster tanks, but civet cats, rodents, and animals that would never come in contact with each other in the wild,” he says. “And yet, there they were, locked in cages, stacked on top of each other, allowing easy exposure to their bodily fluids and exchange of their diversity of pathogens.”

With hoards of people in close contact with these animals, it was not a question of whether the disease would jump from animal to human, but when. 

The wildlife trade brings together animals that never naturally encounter each other in the wild. When people transport these animals to countries where they are not naturally found, the animals introduce their diseases, and those new diseases they contract in transport, to their new home.

This unnecessary contact and transportation of animals between countries is the cause of zoonotic outbreaks. And, as Wittemeyer states, COVID-19 is just the tip of the iceberg if we don’t change our behavior when it comes to our interaction with animals.

What You Can Do To Help

Abolishing the worldwide wildlife trade is a daunting task, and impossible for an individual to accomplish on their own. However, there are smaller differences you can make in order to create larger change.

1. Do Not Facilitate the Illegal Wildlife Trade!

This one may seem obvious but don’t be fooled by simplicity. BBC News reports that there are more tigers held in captivity in the U.S. than there are in the wild. Some of these animals live in zoos, while people own others as exotic pets. 

Early in 2020, the Netflix docuseries Tiger King gained fast attention thanks to its absurd characters like Joe Exotic. While entertaining to watch, PETA’s Brittany Peet emphasizes the danger the show imposes by glamorizing ownership of exotic pets. In a Harper’s Bazaar feature, Peet explains, “It’s important for all of us not just to see this as a joke, but also a call to action to get these animals away from these awful people.”

This may go without saying: don’t buy a tiger cub as a pet. But, we also need to hold those who do accountable for their actions and punish them rather than idealize them. 

2. Vote For Change

“We need to elect politicians that take science and this issue seriously and support our country’s role as the global leader in health and monitoring efforts.” – George Wittemeyer.

Wittemeyer admits, “My colleagues and I have not been surprised or caught off guard by COVID-19. Rather, we knew our actions were making it inevitable.” The toll on human health and the economy as a result of COVID-19 was preventable. The science and knowledge was there to indicate an outbreak was likely. Where we failed was action. 

We need government officials who will take these threats seriously, and put a stop to the root cause. That starts with your vote.

3. Support Conservation Efforts

Local or global, conservation is more than just land preservation. Conservationists like Wittemeyer work to protect animals from poachers and illegal trade. Saving land from deforestation and development is important, but it’s just a portion of what we need to do. Your support of animal conservation efforts ensures the protection of wild animals, and hopefully the eventual halt of their illegal trade.