The United States is the world’s biggest consumer of imported wildlife and wildlife products. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, more than one billion individual animals were imported into the country between 2000 and 2004. Many were sold as pets. In the same time period, more than 11 million pounds of bushmeat and other animal products crossed into our borders.
Often, this trade in wildlife not only breaks the law, but delivers health risks to the nation’s residents, too.
In New York City, a major hub for the trade, the Wildlife Conservation Society is working closely with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to uncover these potential threats. More than 70 percent of zoonoses (diseases that affect both animals and humans) stem from human contact with wildlife. Monkey pox, SARS, and HIV/AIDS (via human infection with simian immunodeficiency virus) have all impacted public health through the consumption or trade of wild animals.
“The movement and mixing of humans, wildlife, and domestic animals as part of the illegal global wildlife trade encourages transmission of disease and emergence of novel pathogens,” said Dr. William Karesh of WCS’s Global Health program. “Our pilot project, still in its early stages, will help identify whether pathogens are entering the U.S. via bushmeat and other illegal wildlife.”
Now, at main entry points for people and goods into NYC and the U.S., inspection officials and health experts have taken hundreds of samples of wildlife and wildlife products. Since the project’s launch in 2008, they have uncovered parts from at least 14 species—great apes, monkeys, rodents, and bats—tucked inside luggage and mail parcels.
Though the researchers have just begun analyzing these samples, they have already found evidence of two strains of simian foamy virus. The body parts of three endangered primate species—two types of mangabey and a chimpanzee—contained the viruses. These strains can infect humans, but whether they cause any human disease is yet unknown.
Experts are also checking primate samples for flavivirus and filovirus, but these tests have been negative so far.
“This project is part of WCS’s One World One Health initiative, which addresses the health needs of humans and wildlife locally and globally,” said Dr. Steven Sanderson, WCS president and CEO. “WCS has pioneered the practice of helping governments around the world find potential human public health threats by monitoring and caring for wildlife populations in their habitats."
In addition to its health and ecological implications, wildlife trade has had enormous economic impacts. The SARS outbreak of 2003—associated with the trade in small carnivores and ultimately traced to bats—cost the global community an estimated $40–50 billion dollars in reactive health measures, declines in travel and commerce, and other cascading economic factors.
Keeping all of this in mind, monitoring and preventing health threats from the illegal trade in wild animals and related products at our nation's gates is essential. Investigators assert that such detection efforts are a critical component of national security.
WCS’s Dr. Kristine Smith, who serves as the chair of the New York Bushmeat and Health Committee (a subcommittee of the New York Department of Health’s Animal Working Group), said at a recent health symposium, “This is the type of inter-agency cooperation that’s needed to protect the public from possible diseases that may be entering the country.”