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We must understand the culture of wildlife consumption to stop future pandemics


We must understand the culture of wildlife consumption to stop future pandemics

Inspire is delighted to have teamed up with Expat Life magazine to bring you more great content to do with Thailand

As I learned while living in rural Lao PDR, trade in and consumption of wildlife is usually based on necessity or belief. So strict controls alone won’t work – measures must take account of culture, behaviour and awareness.

Is wildlife consumption to blame for COVID-19? The consumption of wild animals is nothing new, and very common in Asia. Most researchers pin the origin of the virus on animal-to-human transmission from a wild animal (a bat is the usual suspect) to humans.

To stop the wildlife-to-human transmission of unknown diseases, we first need to understand some of the cultural factors to which wildlife consumption and trade are intricately connected. If we haven’t learned from the initial SARS episode and from the Avian Influenza epidemic, now is the time to pay attention to wildlife consumption and make changes to avoid future loss of life.

Wildlife as a staple part of diets

While researching for my PhD in Lao PDR, I lived in a remote rural community where wildlife was the primary source of protein. During the dry season, especially, when farming was slow and forests were more accessible, men went on hunting trips for game, including bamboo rats, red squirrels, deer, boar, reptiles, monkeys and – yes – bats.

The local people took their food from the immediate environment. The community numbered around 700 residents, yet it extracted 61 tons of wild animal and plant biomass annually from the accessible forest surrounding the village. Wildlife was necessary protein and, together with forest vegetables, completed the people’s daily dietary needs.

Even if wildlife consumption in communities may decrease over time, we can also expect an increased commercialization of wildlife by poor rural people seeking alternative sources of income.

While we found rare and critically endangered species in many wet markets in Lao PDR, for the most part and in much larger quantities, we found lower value wildlife, such as squirrels, rats, snakes, birds, and bats. These food items were not the highly sought-after top-tier rarities, but they were sold in large quantities and they were definitely not checked by the local food safety department.

Wildlife as traded goods

In Lao PDR, over 50 000 hectares of primary forest are lost annually due to deforestation, consequently destroying wildlife habitat. Decreased access to wildlife as food might prompt some communities to subsist on farm animals as their main source of protein, but will this stop them from hunting wildlife altogether? Maybe not.

Apart from wildlife consumption, certain species – especially those associated with power, prowess, libido, or deemed to have medicinal value – are sold for a hefty price. The IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species notes that 45 out of the 215 mammal species identified as endemic in Lao PDR are threatened.

Local wet markets in remote locations of Lao PDR displayed a stunning array of wild animals: red junglefowl (the domestic chicken’s primary progenitor, and now threatened because of hybridization with it), the Laotian rock rat (endangered), various locally unique subspecies of wild boar, sambar deer (vulnerable), mouse-deer (endangered), the Laotian giant flying squirrel (critically endangered), the Asiatic softshell turtle (vulnerable), and the Mekong giant catfish (critically endangered). Rare wildlife was ready to be sold to local consumers who believe these animals hold spiritual and curative powers.

Rare wildlife species become more valuable just before they are completely eradicated. In 2018, the president of Thailand’s largest construction company got caught poaching in a national wildlife sanctuary. Among the several carcasses in his possession was a black panther, an ultra-rare leopard species. According to a news report, the black panther is associated with “sexual virility”, hence the prize kill. Sadly, the man, among the 40 richest in Thailand at the time, was acquitted of killing the animal. (He was, however, handed two related sentences for poaching intent, weapons charges, and bribery.)

While this case is hopefully not the norm, the bulk consumption of less valuable wildlife is likely more threatening in terms of potential outbreaks of diseases. It does, however, show that biodiversity is threatened at all levels, both among high-value prize animals as well as bulk extraction of largely unchecked game.


Source: Expat Life Thailand

Inspire is delighted to have teamed up with Expat Life magazine to bring you more great content to do with Thailand

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