Millions of wild animals imported from hot spots of emerging disease, risking new pandemics
Creatures legally brought in to be sold as pets — including bats and rats — may carry viruses that can jump to humans, researchers say
By Jane Dalton
Millions of live wild animals are being legally imported into the US from hot spots of emerging diseases, risking the spread of lethal viruses, researchers have discovered.
Creatures from bats and parrots to snakes, lizards and rats are brought into the country mostly to be sold as exotic pets, but with some sent to zoos, a study found.
Between 2014 and 2018, more than 3 million wild animals were flown or shipped in from 90 countries, many in regions considered “hot spots” for new diseases, such as Indonesia, El Salvador, Cameroon, Nicaragua, Singapore, Ghana and Madagascar.
The study, which used figures from the government’s Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA), found that 2,492,156 amphibians, 578,772 reptiles, 150,638 mammals and 99,111 birds were imported in the five years studied.
Nearly 70 bats were imported from Madagascar and a dozen others from the Czech Republic and Guyana. The species is suspected of being a source of Covid-19 and carries rabies viruses.
Animals including African pygmy hedgehogs, frogs and tortoises are transported to the UK to fuel the “cruel” trade in exotic pets, according to the report, from charity World Animal Protection.
At least 150,638 mammals, mostly rodents, were brought in from 51 countries. The Czech Republic, Italy and Spain were “of particular concern” for exporting large numbers to the UK.
The report warns: “Unless the nature of wildlife trade shifts considerably, the increasing rate of biotic [organisms] exchange indicates there will be greater opportunities for pathogens to proliferate across the globe.”
Wildlife trade is “a lethal hotbed of disease”, the charity says, because it brings wild animals with immune systems weakened by the stress of captivity and transport into unnatural proximity to other animals and into close contact with people, often in insanitary conditions.
The World Health Organisation says that globally, about a billion cases of illness and millions of deaths occur every year from zoonoses – diseases that spread from animals to humans – and that 75 per cent of emerging zoonotic infectious diseases originate in wild animals.
Diseases may be caused when viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites that wild animals are carrying are introduced into new environments, the researchers said.
Scientists say outbreaks of new diseases with the potential to become pandemics are on the rise, and have become four times as frequent in the past half-century.
Since the 1970s, it is estimated at least three dozen infectious diseases have emerged from human interference with animals, including Sars, Mers, Ebola, bird flu, swine flu and the Zika virus.
The Covid-19 pandemic is widely believed to have originated in these conditions in a market in Wuhan, China, selling wildlife species that would not mix in the wild.
Peter Kemple Hardy, of World Animal Protection, said: “This evidence shows that the legal wildlife trade into the UK is causing suffering to millions of animals and risking another public health crisis.
“We must not overlook the dangers this poses; harmful and deadly pathogens can be transmitted to humans regardless of a wild animal’s legal status.
“In a post-Covid world, we should demand nothing less than a global and permanent ban on the commercial wildlife trade, to protect wild animals, human health and the planet.”
The organisation says the legal wildlife trade dwarfs the illegal trade despite the public health risk.
Other imports included at least 74,829 parrots. Several diseases in humans are linked to birds including histoplasmosis and campylobacteriosis.
The five report authors, three of whom are scientists at Manchester University’s ecology and environment research centre, highlight how rats may spread leptospirosis and plague, and how a recent case of bubonic plague in Mongolia was thought to have originated from contact with a dead marmot.
The peer-reviewed study was published in the journal Animals.