Europa and latin america / Covid-19

The Pangolin, the desire for profit and the global health crisis

25 March 2020

This is an early 21st-century fable and, to be honest, if there is anything to learn from the moral, it is not very funny. For many years, we human beings have been convinced that we control nature, rather than the other way around. Despite the alarm bells, the uninterrupted rise in temperatures, the multiplication of extreme weather events, and the repeated warnings of experts and citizens, the convictions of the majority remain unshakeable.

It is true that in the face of growing concern among the population, our countries’ leaders have adopted various international instruments, perhaps to abate their conscience, as some feel. Among these instruments, which a great majority of countries in the world are proud to ratify in record time, are several conventions that aim to defend protected species.

Protected because they are endangered… But apart from some iconic animals, who cares about creatures unknown to most of us? I myself have to confess that, until recently, I knew nothing of the existence of the pangolin. Well, why strictly apply the requirements of an international convention when it only interests some groups of green activists who still do not represent a political force in almost any country in the world?

The desire to profit from protected species

Now comes the second part of our fable: the desire for profit. Trade in protected species is prohibited and, despite the imperfect implementation of international conventions, it is difficult (or at least should be) to openly sell these kinds of species. When it is prohibited to sell something that is in great demand, traffickers come onto the scene.

Driven by their unconditional love for wild animals and, in the end, by the generation of profits, small and large criminals began to take an interest in the trafficking and commercialisation of protected species. For use as pets or for human consumption. So much so that today such trafficking generates enormous profit for organised crime groups and ranks among the five most profitable types of trafficking in the world.

At this point, there is some concern about the tremendous impact of such trafficking on the biodiversity of our world.  However, it continues to only concern some experts. Among them are members of the criminal chain, police and prosecutors, who have understood the problem of trafficking in protected species. No one can say that it is of the greatest concern for policy makers, nor that it is the highest priority on government agendas. It still isn’t, these days there are other concerns …

Species trafficking and Covid-19

Meanwhile, extraordinarily, the world realises that trafficking in protected species does not only cause great harm to the environment. It has also produced the biggest health crisis in the last hundred years. For some time, scientists have warned of the repercussions of reduced biodiversity in the appearance of new epidemics.

In fact, in the past four decades, more than 70% of emerging infections have derived from animal diseases which are then transmitted to humans. Other scientists have shown that deforestation and illegal gold mining may have brought on the development of the Buruli ulcer. A disease related to leprosy and tuberculosis, not only in clandestine miners but also in populations near illegal mines.

Moral against trafficking in protected species

The moral of this story is that: we now know that trafficking in protected species can create a global health crisis.  One fact that should be considered is that the United Nations estimates the profits from organised crime in environmental trafficking to be between 91 and 258 billion dollars. In other words, much less than the current crisis is going to cost a country like Spain…

Perhaps the time has come to reflect on what is not an alert, but rather an alarm. That this crisis can make us understand that it is useless to adopt international conventions, if we do not implement them effectively. That the fight against environmental crime is now not only a matter of biodiversity protection, but rather a global public health problem. If we are not able to reduce the demand for these species and systematically confiscate the assets resulting from these crimes, we will not be able to end such trafficking and protect not only wild animals but the population as a whole. Perhaps it is still too early to learn every lesson from what is happening to us, but it is better to think about it now so as not to forget later.

Will we really be capable of understanding that we have to stop meddling with nature? Maybe a pangolin knows the answer…

Xavier Cousquer. Co-director of EL PAcCTO

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