The Covid-19 pandemic has put a focus on zoonoses or zoonotic diseases – infections caused by pathogens that have jumped from animals to human beings – as well as on the need to protect the intricate webs of nature.

Bats and pangolins are the two most likely sources of the novel coronavirus, before it was established as SARS-CoV-2 in humans. In China, both are hunted for their meat and traded illegally for their body parts. The most likely source of transmission to humans are believed to be Southern China’s “wet markets”, where farmed and occasionally illegally captured wild animals are sold.

It is important to understand that many coronaviruses occur naturally in animals. These do not normally jump from one animal to another or from animals to humans. For instance, two closely-related species of novel bat coronaviruses – BatCoV RaTG13 and RmYN02, which were discovered in 2019 in horseshoe bats – are about 96% similar in their whole genome sequence to the human SARS-CoV-2. This is still much less than the similarity between chimpanzees and us.

Likewise, a pangolin coronavirus, Pangolin-CoV, has been found to have even less genetic similarity to SARS-CoV-2, at around 91%.

Wet markets bring such species, which would not naturally occur, into close proximity with each other as well with humans, creating fertile ground for cross-species transmission of viruses and their spill-over into humans.

Wildlife trade

There are various factors that enable the emergence of zoonoses, such as hunting, consumption of wild meat, destruction of natural habitats and climate change. These activities bring pathogens and their host animals into contact with humans, enhance the population densities of carriers like mosquitoes and greatly increase the risk of spillovers. Our highly globalised economy then spreads them beyond their initial epicentres to escalate into pandemics, faster than ever before. The rapid ecological and climate degradation is only accelerating the frequency of outbreaks.

Hunting and trade of pangolins and several species of bats has been banned internationally by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora or CITES of 1973 and domestically under India’s Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1973. Despite this, wildlife markets flourish, supplied by networks of well-organised traffickers who coerce poor forest-dwelling communities in biodiversity-rich countries like India into poaching endangered wild animals.

Hunters often boil the pangolins alive to detach the scales. Credit: Author provided

Pangolins, believed to be the most trafficked animals globally, are widely hunted across India for their meat, skin and scales. Of the four Asian species, three are listed as Critically Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, while the Indian pangolin is listed as Endangered.

According to a 2018 report by Trade Records Analysis of Flora and Fauna In Commerce-India, close to 6,000 pangolins were seized from the illegal trade involving India between 2009 and 2017.

The most prized body part of the pangolin are its scales, which many believe have medicinal properties and can cure ailments like piles and jaundice. The fact is, however, the scales are made of keratin – the same substance found in human fingernails and hair.

Hunters often boil the pangolins alive to detach the scales, which are strongly affixed to their bodies. A kilo of scales can fetch up to Rs 50,000.

Preserving ecologies

Rather than afford greater protection to pangolins, the lockdown seems to have offered greater opportunities for poaching and trade in pangolins. Several news reports of pangolin hunting across India have emerged following the lockdown.

Moreover, instead of ensuring better protection of forests and natural habitats to prevent further zoonotic pandemics, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change seems to have gone on a clearance spree. Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar cleared 16 infrastructure projects, at a meeting of the National Board for Wildlife via video conference on April 7.

Pangolins and bats are both ancient mammal lineages. They have evolved over millions of years and developed an immunity that allows them to co-exist with pathogens. Humans – a comparatively newer species that spread across the world recently, in geological terms – have not had the time to adapt to the range of microbes in the same way.

Despite being placed under the highest level of protection at the domestic and international level, pangolins continue to be hunted rampantly. Their survival is highly unlikely unless stronger measures are taken up to curb the illicit trade. This not only pushes them to extinction, but also diminishes the numerous ecological services they perform. There is a responsibility on humans – to conserve wildlife and natural habitats, not just for the sake of biodiversity, but also to minimise risks of pandemics like Covid-19.

Vikram Aditya and Rajkamal Goswami are postdoctoral research associates at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Bengaluru. T Ganesh is a Senior Fellow at the Suri Sehgal Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Bengaluru.