Scientists Tie Zoonotic Diseases Back To Illegal Wildlife Trade

By Caitlynn McDaniel, Cronkite News
Published: Wednesday, November 11, 2020 - 5:05am
Updated: Wednesday, November 11, 2020 - 8:33am

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Phoenix Herpetological Sanctuary
Sky Schaudt/KJZZ
The Phoenix Herpetological Sanctuary in north Phoenix houses hundreds of displaced reptiles in captivity.

The World Health Organization determined COVID-19 evolved as a zoonotic disease, meaning it spread from a wildlife host to a human. Scientists tie this back to wildlife trade, where millions of animals and their byproducts have been transferred in and out of the United States' borders in the past five years.

The Phoenix Herpetological Sanctuary houses hundreds of displaced reptiles in captivity. Some reptiles, like water turtles, can come from as close as your local pet store. 

“A pet trade animal that are legally sold in Arizona. But short-lived pets because there's so much work that most people want to get rid of them after they get them,” explained Daniel Marchand with the Phoenix Herpetological Sanctuary. “We got hundreds of these guys.”

The sanctuary is also home to other exotic reptiles, like a pair of alligators named Charlie and Lucy, as well as neighboring crocodiles, snapping turtles and poisonous snakes. The wildlife are all rescues from illegal reptile trafficking circles. 

Phoenix Herpetological Sanctuary
Sky Schaudt/KJZZ
The sanctuary is home for hundreds of reptiles including turtles, snakes and crocodiles.

“The illegal side of it is a whole big black market. People want to own and possess things they really shouldn’t have,” Marchand said, adding that the regulation of animal trading is complicated by a patchwork of federal and state laws, especially in places like Texas.

“Someone can order 100 venomous snakes of different kinds to put in their store, where it's legal,” he explained, “and they’re allowed to do it.” 

Each transaction causes a supply and demand effect, driving up the animals’ value. When the pet owners get greedy, Marchand said, they look out-of-state for more buyers. 

“Someone who lives in Arizona might pay a little bit more money, because it's something that they can't find here,” for example, he said, “In Europe, a particular rattle snake can fetch up to $50,000.”

Tanya Sanerib with the Center for Biological Diversity said animals that end up in the black market are typically stolen directly from the wild.

“People who are going out into nature, capturing wild animals, and they put them in a bag, they put them in a cage …” Sanerib said. 

With animals and humans alike, Sanerib said unnatural containment causes stress on the bodies and compromises immune systems.  

“That means we are also going to be releasing the diseases that we have in our bodies,” said Sanerib. “So we're shedding diseases, the animals are stressed, they can pick up diseases more easily.”

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates six out of 10 known infectious diseases in humans can spread from animals, and three out of every four new or emerging infectious diseases came from wildlife.

Professor Andrew Dobson with Princeton University studies ecology and infectious diseases, specifically how they pass from animal to human.

“Most of them are unsuccessful, but occasionally we get one roughly every four years or so that takes off and starts causing a new epidemic,” Dobson estimated.

COVID-19 is only one example of a zoonotic disease. 

The National Park Services reports that in Arizona, along the northern rim of the Grand Canyon, zoonotic diseases thrive in the deer mouse and cotton rat, both found carrying the deadly hantavirus. The deer tick can carry Lyme disease, and while Arizona bats have not been known to carry coronavirus, they can — on rare occasions — carry rabies.  

Dobson said all animal species carry viruses that scientists have not yet identified. 

Phoenix Herpetological Sanctuary
Sky Schaudt/KJZZ
The Phoenix Herpetological Sanctuary in north Phoenix houses hundreds of displaced reptiles in captivity.

“If you've gone out with researchers collecting bats taking a blood sample from them and looking for viruses in that tissue sample,” he said for example, “then roughly every three or 400 bats, you'll find 20 new species of viruses.”

Sanerib is the international legal director at CBD. She said the U.S. contributes 20% of the animals to the global wildlife market. That includes animals exported out of state as well as many rare species imported into Arizona.

There are large organizations created to monitor the illegal trade, including the Convention for International Trade of Endangered Species. It aims to protect the over-exploitation of more than 37,000 types of animals and plants. But Dobson said there are obstacles that undermine the convention. 

“It has an annual budget of $6 million, which is pathetic,” he explained. 

This year, the society only received $2 million toward that goal despite its largest membership of over 180 countries.

On a local scale, Marchand advised the only way to stop the illegal trading is to tighten and enforce tougher regulations. Currently, one case of illegal wildlife trading in Arizona results in a $100 fine. 

“We felt that that was nothing more than a slap on the wrist,” Marchand said it won’t get better until there are stronger deterrents, like “law enforcement, stricter laws, and penalties for those who are caught doing illegal activity and trade would be great.”

Like the traded Arizona rattle snake, he recommends lawmakers strike illegal wildlife traders where it will hurt.

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