By Tennyson Williams
The smuggling and consumption of wild animals has helped Ebola spread in West Africa. What better moment to act, says an animal protection campaigner
The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is leaving death, fear and disruption in its wake. In Guinea, Liberia and my country of origin, Sierra Leone, the social fabric is unravelling as mistrust, paranoia and uncertainty damage relationships and drive behaviours reminiscent of those during the Black Death.
We all hope this epidemic can be contained soon. But will we learn to change the behaviours that directly brought it about?
According to the World Health Organization, the Ebola virus enters human populations when people handle or eat infected wildlife, especially fruit bats, chimpanzees, monkeys, forest antelopes and porcupines. Eating bushmeat remains common throughout Africa, either for subsistence or as a luxury.
The Ebola outbreak is an opportunity to clamp down on a practice which both causes disease outbreaks and empties forests of wildlife. At a minimum, governments should zealously enforce bans on the hunting and consumption of bats and apes, two groups most commonly associated with Ebola.
Such bans exist but are rarely enforced. The fear and unrest generated by the outbreak could spur governments to take these bans seriously – with the support of the local populace.
Another way to reduce the chance of future outbreaks is for the world to act together to stop the illegal trade in live wildlife out of Africa. This trade results in considerable potential contact between infected animals and people, including traffickers, collectors, drivers, airport cargo handlers, airline passengers and the wider public in destination countries. It would only take one sick chimpanzee trafficked through a major airline hub to spawn a new Ebola outbreak.
If the world is serious about preventing outbreaks of dreadful diseases, then it must act. Airlines, as the international transporters of live wildlife, can rapidly and unilaterally make a huge difference. I challenge them to do the right thing and stop transporting live wildlife.
The trade is also horrifically cruel. Wild animals should be left in the wild, for all our sakes.
This article appeared in print under the headline "Ebola's silver lining"
Tennyson Williams is regional director for Africa for the animal welfare organisation World Animal Protection. He is based in Nairobi, Kenya