In 2020 the world changed, in a story we all know too well. A mysterious virus originating in Wuhan, China – possibly from a wet market – was identified as a novel coronavirus, similar to the 2002–04 SARS epidemic which caused 774 deaths (World Health Organization, 2015). This new disease, SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19), quickly overtook SARS in both cases and deaths, and spread rapidly around the globe. With the unprecedented emergence of this pandemic, the talk of the world quickly moved to how to prevent it from happening again. Many politicians and global leaders have discussed strategies for global health and disease prevention, but few have discussed the origins of this pandemic.
COVID-19 is a zoonosis, as are SARS, Ebola, MERS and HIV – a disease caused by a pathogen that has jumped from a non-human animal to a human. SARS and MERS are both coronaviruses that infected humans from bats, with civets and camels as a vector respectively (Yuan et al., 2010; Xu et al., 2004; World Health Organization, 2019). For years, as the illegal wildlife trade continues and natural places are deforested or destroyed for development, scientists have predicted that new zoo-noses would emerge.
The poaching of wildlife for trafficking and human consumption is rarely sanitary. Wet markets, with many stressed, wounded and immunocompromised animals forced together, create the perfect conditions for the emergence and spread of novel diseases. COVID-19 was not a chance occurrence, but an inevitability of the wildlife trade.
Wildlife Alliance (www.wildlifealliance.org) has been working in Cambodia to counter the illegal wildlife trade since 2001, through the use of the Wildlife Rapid Rescue Team, Asia's only full-time counter wildlife trafficking law enforcement unit. Whilst the trade is illegal, an underground black market is thriving. Many animals are poached from the forests using ecologically devasting snares, and then exported to China and Vietnam or consumed in country (Gray et al., 2018).
As shown in a survey conducted by Fauna and Flora International (2018), a large proportion of wildlife consumers in the cities are the richer upper classes. Wild meat is believed to be healthier and to have traditional medicinal properties. It is largely consumed by adult men in social settings to show status, wealth and power.
The above considerations have inspired our #STOPEATINGWILDLIFE social media campaign. We have produced content and a campaign video in Khmer, to educate the urban Cambodian public of the dangers of eating wildlife meat and supporting the illegal wildlife trade. By using Khmer adverts, predominately on Facebook and targeted on urban centres, we can track engagement and modify our content accordingly. Facebook is almost synonymous with the internet in Cambodia, so it is the perfect medium to reach the widest audience. The campaign's goal is for more Cambodians to understand that not only are they increasing the risks of a new novel disease outbreak, but that the unsustainable trade is decimating the biodiversity of Cambodia's forests and pushing many species to the brink of extinction, robbing the country of its natural heritage. The common misconception that wildlife meat is healthy could not be further from the truth, and must be challenged. ■
Fauna and Flora International (2018) Exploring bushmeat consumption behaviors among Phnom Penh citizens. Available at https://is.gd/8jrfRw (accessed February 2021).
Gray T, Hughes A, Laurance W et al. (2018) The wildlife snaring crisis: an insidious and pervasive threat to biodiversity in Southeast Asia. Biodiversity and Conservation 27: 1031–7.
World Health Organization (2015) Summary of probable SARS cases with onset of illness from 1 November 2002 to 31 July 2003. Available at https://is.gd/5K9hDH (accessed February 2021).
World Health Organization (2019) Middle East respira-tory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV). Available at https://is.gd/JuJhZt (accessed February 2021).
Xu R, He J, Evans M et al. (2004) Epidemiologic clues to SARS origin in China. Emerging Infectious Diseases 10: 1030–7.
Yuan J, Hon C, Li Y et al. (2010) Intraspecies diversity of SARS-like coronaviruses in Rhinolophus sinicus and its implications for the origin of SARS coronaviruses in humans. Journal of General Virology 91: 1058–62.