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World Out of Balance: Earth Day 2020


On the road from the Thai border back to Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, we used to stop at a restaurant that had the corpse of a monkey crucified to a wooden frame leaning against the wall. We called it the ‘Endangered Species Restaurant.” The monkey, along with various body parts of other unidentified animals, made up the luncheon menu.

This was the 1990s. Even then, it was illegal to trade in bushmeat, so named because in Africa, these wild animals live in “the bush."

More than two million tons of bushmeat is consumed each year in Central Africa, causing Empty Forest Syndrome, as scientists call it: forests that look normal, but are devoid of wildlife.

In Latin America, between five to eight million people rely on bushmeat as a primary source of protein in their diets.

The illegal wildlife trade is not merely a matter of cute animals tugging on the heartstrings. Often these animals are rare or endangered. Extinction and climate change have a dark synergy that scientists warn threatens ecological collapse. Those warnings have grown in intensity over the past year.

From the Congo at Mbandaka, a woman selling an electric cat fish, which delivers 300 volts.

As far as anyone can tell, the coronavirus outbreak started in an outdoor food market in Wuhan, China. These "wet" markets are often where poor and working-class Chinese get their food. But they are also where rich Asians, not only in China, but Vietnam and Korea, obtain illegal wildlife.

Officials including Dr. Anthony Fauci have called for a shutdown of wet markets. The United Nations’ biodiversity chief, Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, also has called for a global ban on wildlife markets to prevent future pandemics, but Mrema acknowledged the difficulties.

"It would be good to ban the live animal markets as China has done and some countries," she said. "But we should also remember you have communities, particularly from low-income rural areas, particularly in Africa, which are dependent on wild animals to sustain the livelihoods of millions of people.

"So unless we get alternatives for these communities, there might be a danger of opening up illegal trade in wild animals which currently is already leading us to the brink of extinction for some species.

In response to the pandemic, China has issued a temporary ban on wildlife markets where animals such as civets, live wolf pups and pangolins are kept alive in small cages while on sale, often in filthy conditions where they incubate diseases that can then spill into human populations.

In February. the national People’s Congress issued rules against trading in wild animals and limited their consumption. People's Republic of China President Xi Jinping emphatically declared, “We can’t be indifferent anymore!”

The rules are there, but enforcing them is a different question altogether. Generally, it doesn't happen.

Consider the pangolin. Early reports indicated that COVID-19 was spread by a pangolin in the Wuhan market.

All eight species of pangolin are considered critically endangered. China outlawed the sale of pangolins in 2007, yet TRAFFIC, which monitors the global trade in wildlife, reported that around 90,000 were smuggled into China over the next nine years. The conservation group Wild Aid estimated that a million pangolins were poached over that decade.

If anything, the rules and regulations against trafficking pangolins probably made them more valuable as a semi-clandestine delicacy, promoting the status of anyone capable of offering Pangolin meat in a hot pot.

Pangolins are only one example of the intensity of the wildlife trade. Interpol estimates the illegal wildlife trade at $20 billion annually, just behind guns and humans.

Wet market in Xian.

The real problem, as author David Quammen, tells us, is that we're moving into forests, deserts, and oceans at an astounding clip. Suddenly, people are in contact with bats and snakes and, yes, pangolins. The animals carry diseases that they're developed immunity to, but we've never encountered. Think the U.S. Cavalry giving smallpox-infected blankets to the Native Americans.

We're killing plants and animals by destroying the natural world they depend on, and now, they are killing us.

A Goliath Tiger fish, the only fish capable of killing a crocodile, Congo.

In 2001, Time magazine, where I had worked for a long time, laid off a lot of us at the foreign bureaus. I was still in Asia then; and I talked my way into an assignment from Talk magazine, the short-lived publication headed by Tina Brown, to cover the Uruguayan Navy, which was part of a U.N. peacekeeping force dispatched to the Congo River to stop pirates from stealing aid supplies.

The Congo River has been a journey for many writers; not just a trip: a journey. We hired a pirogue to travel upriver. At Mbndaka, halfway to our destination, I noticed locals happily wolfing down live caterpillars doused with what looked like red pepper, the local equivalent of popcorn.

We tied the pirogue to a barge to complete the long trip up the Congo River. We subsisted on packaged food while the crew feasted nightly on bits and pieces of a small crocodile, smoked until it was pitch black and twisted into a scaly ring so that it appeared to be biting its own tail.

While we were on the river, the World Trade Center blew up. I heard about the attack when we landed, by satellite phone.

Talk never ran our story.

At the time, 9/11 seemed just another in a long line of attacks and murders I had reported on, and, in a way it is. That was a one-time event, but atrocities in the Congo continue as they have for decades now, largely ignored by the Western media.

The animals? They're still eaten, of course. In places where people are struggling for survival, basic needs must be met or efforts to save the environment are just paper, empty policy statements, or, worse, luxuries to make people in the West feel better about themselves.

On the Congo River

In the end, we all suffer. My wife’s father worked as a bush doctor in the Congo in the 1950s. One of his tasks was to inspect meat in the local market with a sharp eye for anything that looked vaguely human.

One needn't be so literal.

We are, as Quammen suggested, eating ourselves.

Vintage photo, Congo.

William Thatcher Dowell was a staff correspondent for Time based in Paris, Cairo, Hong Kong and New York. From 1993 to 1995, he lived in Hong Kong, working as Time's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief. He covered the Arab world and Iran from 1989 through 1993.

All photos are his own, unless otherwise noted.

More on Endangered Species and the Coronavirus in Journal of the Plague Year in Poetics.

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