'We never learn': Exotic wildlife trade resumes despite Covid-19 fear

WARNING – CONFRONTING IMAGES: A notorious wildlife market which shut down when the Covid-19 pandemic surged has been quietly reopening, a new report has revealed.

Primates, jaguars, sloths and dolphins are just some of the 200 Amazon species investigators from World Animal Protection (WAP) documented being sold at Peru’s Belen market.

Images shot during August confirmed wildlife was once again being sold at the site despite the nation banning the wildlife trade in all urban centres.

Wildlife, including reptiles and sloths, being sold at markets in Peru's Belen market.
The trade in wildlife including reptiles and sloths is continuing in Belen market in Peru. Source: Fernando Carniel Machado / WAP

Authorities have told WAP they did not have the capacity to enforce the law due to a lack of resources.

Wealthier nations are now being urged to help nations struggling to combat the issue to step up and prevent the next pandemic from occurring.

No surprise that wildlife trade has reemerged in market

The Belen market was closed for most of 2020 and 2021, and the United Nations Development Program has been collaborating with stall holders to improve hygiene since 2015.

With many scientists believing the coronavirus outbreak began with zoonotic transmission from wildlife, WAP’s global head of wildlife medicine Gilbert Sape said the reopening was frustrating, but predictable.

Litter covers the banks of a river in Peru.
Concerns about sanitation around the market remain, despite assistance from the UN to help improve conditions. Source: Fernando Carniel Machado / WAP

“I think there is no surprise there,” Mr Sape told Yahoo News Australia from Bangkok.

“I’m sure the trade was also happening on the side even during Covid, it’s just that it wasn’t openly done in public.

“We never learn our lessons on these issues.”

Call for Australia to stop next pandemic by stopping wildlife trade

Mr Sape believes that while the world is focussed on developing and implementing coronavirus vaccines, too little work is going into zoonotic disease prevention.

“The response very much is short sighted and doesn’t address the issue in a systematic way,” he said.

“Being decisive and recognising that what we are experiencing is a result of zoonosis is mostly missing – (the majority) of the diseases we are experiencing are actually coming from wildlife.”

Photos showing a man carrying a fish on his back and a jaguar is displayed at the Belen market.
Australia could be doing more to fight the wildlife trade, according to Mr Sape. Source: Fernando Carniel Machado / WAP

Mr Sape argues Australia, a G20 nation, has the power to stop the next pandemic by being a leader in stopping the wildlife trade.

"If they don’t take action, then unfortunately the next pandemic is just around the corner waiting to explode," he said.

Chinese wildlife trade laws 'insufficient'

While many of the animals sold at the market will be used within Latin America for meat, medicine and spiritual practice, a portion of them will likely be smuggled to China and Vietnam.

Despite Chinese authorities banning the breeding and consumption of wildlife in 2020, trade for medicine, fashion and pets remains unencumbered.

Research published by Current Biology in February concluded China's measures are insufficient, noting issues with quarantine and enforcement of framing regulations.

A woman and boy hold a baby tiger.
Despite China banning the eating of wildlife, the ban does not extend to many other industries. Source: Getty images, file

COP15 talks must tackle illegal wildlife trade

World leaders are meeting virtually this month for the United Nations COP15 biodiversity talks and will commit to protecting more habitats, however critics argue there has been too little focus on stopping the wildlife trade.

Experts are split on whether it should be banned outright, or permitted with greater regulation and improved enforcement.

While many worry that outlawing trade will simply see it move underground, WAP's Mr Sape sees the legal utilisation of wildlife resources as “problematic”.

“By that approach it means it’s okay to actually continue the trade and the exploitation of wildlife as long as it’s sustainable,” he said.

“But we know that it is unsustainable. If you look at Peru, we know a lot of the animals being sold there are actually endangered.

“Then of course you have the issue of animal welfare and the issue of public health.”

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