Located at the disturbing interface of endangered species, animal poaching, and aphrodisiac hawking, the poem "Endangered Species" brings focus onto illegal wildlife traffic and trade: tigers, rhinoceroses, seahorses, and pangolins (although unnamed), whose body parts are extolled, consumed, and worn for their sex-enhancing, infertility-curing, body-building, and disease-fighting powers.
Though these claims of curative powers lack scientific basis, the belief in them, and the consumption of animal parts based in those beliefs, persists. These medicinal claims come from traditional cultures and medicine practices in Latin American, African, and Asian countries. The venues for procuring these animal parts, so-called “wet markets,” also exist in these countries.
However, since the novel coronavirus, now called Covid-19, likely originated in China, let’s focus on markets there. Not all wet markets in China are the same. There’s a range of types and product availabilities, along with gradations of risk associated with buying and consuming. A typical market sells perishable foods such as fresh produce, filleted fish, and slaughtered meat at indoor and outdoor stalls. Other markets sell commonly eaten, live domesticated animals—chickens, ducks, pigs, and such—bought and butchered on the spot.
The variety of wet market at the apparent origin of the coronavirus pandemic is one that allows the sale of live, often endangered and poached, wild animals. At such a market, the conditions are horrid for animals, such as bats, peacocks, turtles, cobras, badgers, pangolins, and other “exotics.” Confined to cages stacked one atop others, animals are subjected to the urine, feces, blood, pus, and saliva from those above. Not much imagination is required to grasp how animal-to-animal disease is spread.
Now, introduce humans. Chinese wildlife wet markets are a chock-a-block bustle of human, live animal, and bloody flesh. In other words, disease-incubating, 24/7 experiments in the transmission of zoonotic pathogens. Animal-to-human diseases are especially dangerous because humans have low or no resistance. We’ve not had the the chance to develop antibodies—hence the “novel” coronavirus.
Scientists think the new pathogen responsible for our global pandemic started with animal-to-animal spread, followed by animal-to-human spread, followed by travel and communal transmission. Because bats carry coronaviruses, current thinking is that a bat, possibly a horseshoe bat, common in live wild animal wet markets, defecated on another animal in a cage below it, then that animal, possibly a pangolin (one of the most hunted endangered species in the world) was slaughtered and sold, creating an animal-to-human, then human-to-human link in the virus chain.
The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China where the first 20 people diagnosed with the disease were linked, along with all other Wuhan wet markets were shuttered while the city was under quarantine. Now, as Wuhan emerges from quarantine, the wet markets are said to be reopening.
On the surface, a complete elimination of wet markets may seem warranted, but doing so is complicated by socioeconomic and cultural considerations. Closing wet markets altogether would affect poor and working-class Chinese for whom the markets are a daily source of affordable food, subsistence income, and local community. The markets that include the sale of wildlife or wild meat are a different story. At these markets, impoverished people who come to buy cheap bushmeat mix with affluent buyers, searching for tinctures and talismans, such as tiger claw necklaces to improve virility.
To further complicate the matter, it turns out that traditional Chinese medicine has been leveraged to bolster commercial trade in wildlife products, from which wildlife traders and the Chinese government profit mightily. You see, the industry and its markets are not based solely in the demand of Chinese consumers, but also in the influence of the wildlife traffickers, traders, and breeders.
Even with this complex of factors, there’s a way to ban the sale of wildlife in wet markets and reduce the risk of disease, while also maintaining income and food security and cultural and culinary practices. Doing so would require the Chinese government to check the power and greed of wildlife traffickers, traders, and breeders, while emphasizing the health and safety of its citizens, and all denizens of our human-dominated world.
"Endangered Species,” by Jami Macarty, is from her book, The Minuses, part of the Mountain West poetry series. Reprinted with the permission of the Center for Literary Publishing. Macarty is editor of The Maynard and teaches poetry at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia.