Online Wildlife Trade is Thriving Despite COVID-19 Risk

Pandemic hasn't slowed down social media interest in wildlife pets.

lovebirds in cage
One ad for lovebirds mentioned there would be hand sanitizer available due to COVID-19. Arif Wihananto / Getty Images

Since the very early days of COVID-19, researchers say the disease likely originated with wildlife then was spread to people. Yet despite that knowledge, the illegal wildlife trade has continued to thrive online through the pandemic, a new study finds.

Researchers from Oxford Brookes University in the U.K. and the University of Western Australia analyzed more than 20,000 Facebook posts about the wild pet trade. The researchers have been studying the legal and illegal wildlife trade for more than 20 years.

In typical years, they monitor wildlife markets where they sell songbirds, mammals, and reptiles for pets, food, or medicine; wet markets where animals are sold for meat and medicine; and the online trade where animals are primarily sold for pets. But due to pandemic-related travel restrictions, this year they focused all their attention on the online wildlife trade.

“At the beginning of the year there were a number of reports, from various countries, that wildlife markets had been shut down. In other countries they remained open,” study co-author Vincent Nijman, a professor of anthropology at Oxford Brookes University, tells Treehugger.

“We expected that at least part of the trade would switch, at least in part, to online (just like we have changed our shopping habits and we now order more of our groceries online). We also expected that in discussing the trade in wildlife (including exotic pets or otherwise wild caught animals) people would express caution because of COVID-19, and we expected the emergence of a discourse where wild animals, trade, and COVID-19 were discussed in an interlinked manner.”

Instead, they found thousands of posts advertising wild animals for sale with few mentions of any potential connection to the virus. In some cases, they marketed wildlife as good lockdown pets.

“When comparing the data we had collected prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, during the arrival of COVID-19 and when it had firmly arrived in the countries we studied (Indonesia and Brazil), we noted that the traders advertising animals and their (potential) customers continued in a business as usual manner,” Nijman says.

“We found no, or very few, people addressing the links between COVID-19 and the wildlife trade, and if they did it was done in a manner that we did not expect. That is, they used COVID-19, the travel restrictions, the lockdowns, as a way to promote the trade in wild-caught pets: ‘buy your animal now before lockdown,’ ‘monkeys are good lockdown friends,’ ‘despite covid we still deliver,’ etc.”

Discounts, Delivery, and Lockdown Pets

For the study, researchers read through about 100,000 comments from more than 20,000 posts and only about 0.44% of those had any COVID-19 mentions. Their findings were published in the journal Environmental Research.

They found that no traders or purchasers discussed the potential transmission of the virus from wildlife to humans. Instead, they offered discounts and home delivery and customers were urged to spend more time with animals during lockdown.

Discounts were given, home delivery services were provided, and customers were encouraged to spend larger amounts of time due to lockdown with the animals.

“The intense media coverage and public pressure to ban wildlife trade and consumption in Asian countries, such as China and Vietnam, may contribute to encourage the development of governmental policies on the matter,” the researchers write. “We found no evidence that they produce behavioral or attitudinal changes within the trade actors selling online.”

Nijman says more can be done to ensure better safety.

“There are some elements of the wildlife trade that are clearly in need of better regulation, and certainly when it comes to emerging infectious diseases and their links to wildlife trade we all need to do a lot better to mitigate the risks,” he says.

“Governments, private sectors and communities have to work in collaborative partnerships to develop strategies that include stakeholders directly involved in the trade (traders, middlemen, customers). We show in our study that these stakeholders may not be engaged in a manner that we perhaps naively thought they would be.”

View Article Sources
  1. Aguirre, A., Alonso, et al. "Illicit Wildlife Trade, Wet Markets, And COVID‐19: Preventing Future Pandemics." World Medical & Health Policy, vol. 12, no. 3, 2020, pp. 256-265, doi:10.1002/wmh3.348

  2. Morcatty, Thais, Q., et al. "Online Trade In Wildlife And The Lack Of Response To COVID-19." Environmental Research, 2020, p. 110-439, doi:10.1016/j.envres.2020.110439