What can stop people eating wild animals? A new study looks for answers

The trade and consumption of wild animals have been banned in China since February last year.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Post-pandemic campaigns to cut consumption of wildlife in Asia should target specific groups - rather than entire populations - because driving factors vary among people, according to the authors of an international study.

According to the study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Ecology & Evolution on Monday, reducing consumer demand for wild animal products may be a more thorough way to cut consumption and the risk of a new pandemic than regulatory efforts.

But influencing behaviour in this area is complex and largely unexplored.

"[There is] limited investment in research to understand what drives individuals to consume wildlife," said the authors, led by lead wildlife scientist at WWF-United States Robin Naidoo.

To help fill in the gap, the researchers surveyed 5,000 people from Hong Kong, Japan, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam in March, 2020 and asked them whether they had consumed wild mammals, birds or reptiles in the previous 12 months, whether their behaviour had changed because of Covid-19, and what their behaviour was likely to be in the future.

They found that in general the higher the awareness of Covid-19, the lower the probability that respondents said they or someone they knew would buy wildlife.

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"Those with greater awareness [of Covid-19] were 11-24 per cent less likely to buy wildlife," they said.

In Hong Kong, analysis suggested that targeting the wealthier population who earned more than US$135,000 per year with information to raise awareness on Covid-19 would reduce the average probability of people in that group buying wildlife in the future from 16 to 7 per cent.

The authors said one of the big drivers of emerging infectious diseases that jump from animals to humans was the trade in wildlife, particularly species sold in high-risk market conditions.

More than 70 per cent of emerging infectious diseases in humans originated in animals, particularly wild animals, according to the World Health Organisation.

"Traditional markets, where live animals are held, slaughtered and dressed, pose a particular risk for pathogen transmission to workers and customers alike," the WHO said in April, calling on countries to impose emergency regulations to stop the sale of live wild mammals in food markets.

The researchers in the study found that in all surveyed places but Myanmar, people who thought wildlife market closures would be very effective in preventing future pandemics were more likely to have reported wildlife purchases among their social circle in the last year.

"This may be explained by the fact that the people most familiar with these markets and the conditions wildlife are kept in may also be best placed to understand how closing them may protect public health," the researchers said.

Daniel Bergin, one of the authors of the paper, said that even though the survey was done early last year, the drivers for and deterrents to wildlife consumption were still relevant.

"People's views haven't changed that much since the beginning of the pandemic," said Bergin, a senior project manager with public opinion research consultancy GlobeScan.

"Targeting towards the links between wildlife trade and the potential for diseases and future pandemics, and framing it in regards to the One Health approach is the way that we can change people's perceptions and outlooks."

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The One Health approach is based on the idea that human, animal and environmental health are interrelated.

In a follow-up survey between February and March this year, 92 per cent of the 1,000 respondents in mainland China said they were very likely or likely to support the efforts by governments to close all high-risk markets selling animals coming from the wild.

"It was a very high general population agreement with measures to try and reduce the chance of the future pandemics by stopping [the] wildlife trade," Bergin said, adding that the strong correlation could be used to inform how to design future campaigns.

But the authors also said that making the consumption of wildlife illegal could drive existing demand underground to black markets, pointing to the examples of alcohol and recreational drugs.

And closing markets or restricting access to wildlife in areas where trade was highly localised and wildlife use was a major source of income "poses ethical dilemmas and trade-offs that are not easily answered".

In China, the trade and consumption of wild animals have been banned since February last year.

The country also stepped up revisions of wildlife protection laws. In February, it added more than 500 new species to a list of nationally protected animals, including the wolf, large-spotted civet and golden jackal. Poaching or trading animals on the list would mean different levels of punishment.

This article was first published inĀ South China Morning Post.