COVID-19, Environment

Four legs good, two legs bad: How the wildlife trade contributed to the COVID-19 pandemic

A jaguar head that had been seized by US Fish and Wildlife Service officials. The head was displayed in an educational area of a USFWS facility in Colorado. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

A stool made from an elephant’s foot, another from a bear’s paw. A giraffe, missing its body, leaned in a corner. Dozens of jaguar heads, tagged and wrapped in plastic, lined a 20-foot-long shelf. Across the aisle, cowboy boots, in sizes that would fit toddlers through adults, sheathed in snake or alligator skin. Purses and lamps, rugs and blankets: all made from animals.

From ceiling to floor, a warehouse in Colorado, operated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, holds thousands of seized animal parts, evidence of a widespread, illegal international wildlife trade. 

I visited the warehouse with other environmental journalists at a conference last fall. The sheer amount of body parts overwhelmed us. (We were prohibited from taking photographs in the evidence room, but could do so in the public educational areas.)

Roughly 7,000 species of animals, reptiles, birds and insects are trafficked, according to the Work Wildlife Seizures database. The wildlife marketplace, both legal and illegal, has not only ethical and ecological implications, but also public health consequences. Zoonotic diseases, as they’re known, can jump from animals and insects to people. Some are well-known — West Nile fever, the plague, Lyme disease, rabies, toxoplasmosis and ringworm — and others, like COVID-19, are new.

An Indian pangolin (Photo by Ajit K. Huilgol via the US Fish and Wildlife Service)

The current global health crisis began in a wildlife market in the province of Wuhan, China. The coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, might have incubated in a bat, and then passed to a pangolin, a mammal and scaly anteater that is widely trafficked for its meat and use in traditional medicine. And from the pangolin to us, humans.

An estimated 1 million pangolins have been poached in the last decade, in Asia and Africa, according to TRAFFIC, a non-governmental monitoring network based in the United Kingdom. 

The World Wildlife Federation reports that of the eight pangolin species, six are either critically endangered or endangered; two are considered vulnerable to extinction. They are protected under national and international laws, but nonetheless are often trafficked illegally.

Eating pangolins has been prohibited in China since 1989. However, under special circumstances, pangolin scales can be traded and used in China for medicinal use, according to a TRAFFIC report. “However, there is a lack of evidence on how effective the regulations are in preventing illegal trade in pangolin parts,” by traditional Chinese medicine shops and animal wholesalers, the report says.

A bat seized by US Fish and Wildlife Service (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

The illegal wildlife trade is not limited to Asian and African countries. The US is a robust market for contraband, particularly for mammals and reptiles. An article in the academic journal Global Crime noted that from 2003 to 2013, US imports were “substantial, accounting for over 2.5 million animal products and over 90,000 live animals seized, bearing in mind that much of wildlife smuggling goes undetected or undeclared.” 

Moreover,  the US Fish and Wildlife Service has only about 300 federal agents to inspect more than 70 airports and seaports. (Most of the trade occurs in air cargo, although some smugglers also bring items in their personal luggage.)

Internationally, nearly 175 countries have signed CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna. Between 2010 and 2014, more than 64,000 live wild animals belonging to 359 species were seized by authorities. But a report by Nature Conservation showed that less than a third of those nations reported seizures, suggested “that the records represent only a fraction of the actual animals being illegally traded.

Sometimes traffickers sell stuffed bodies of the animals. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

3 Comments


  1. Hazel Curtis Curtis

    March 17, 2020 at 10:33 pm

    Horrific and vile murder and wanton abuse of natures pivotal living beings, that are vital threads in natures necessary chain, that have the right to life and moreover serve a crucial purpose in the sustainment of all life including human. Next they will be murdering people whom are also threads in this vital chain having shrunken heads and lamps made out of human skin as they did in the Nazi regime in the last world war. same thing an atrocity enacted by ignorance arrogance and disregard and contempt, and a digusting reminder that man has devolved rather than evolved from prehistoric cave days. Falling head over heels to destroy our living planet in a sinister obcession to be surrounded by stuffed corpses, rather than appreciate life, and know that all that have been given life have purpose and right to be here and are not here to become trophies. Especially not endangered ones. This is vile and evil and must stop, full stop!!!!

  2. Efletcher

    March 19, 2020 at 4:35 pm

    Your comment contains all of the illegal horrific and totally unnecessary destruction of our natural wildlife.

    300 federal agents desperately needs to be increased to a larger force that can actually make a difference to catch the people that trap, murder and trade these natural treasures!!

  3. Naddina

    March 19, 2020 at 6:59 pm

    Oh my God this is heartbreaking!
    But good news that it was caught and taken down.

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