With the COVID-19 pandemic, the Philippines urgently needs to strengthen its 20-year-old Wildlife Protection Act to help stop potential outbreaks.
Numerous global scientific studies have shown that most new infectious diseases emerge when pathogens are transmitted from animals to humans – or what we call zoonotic disease transmission. These diseases emerge not because of the existence of wildlife, but because of people who exploit them and destroy their habitat.
Economic growth has disrupted ecosystems and habitat through unplanned urbanization, land degradation, and deforestation. This has allowed people to closely interact with wildlife, leading to hotbeds of zoonotic disease transmission.
The earliest cases of infection of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), which causes COVID-19, were traced to a market in Wuhan reportedly selling meat from exotic wild animals such as bats, snakes, and pangolins. The Chinese government has since banned the trade, suspecting its role in the spread of the virus.
The SARS outbreak in 2002 was caused by a novel betacoronavirus found in bats and then transmitted to masked palm civets before reaching humans. A decade later, in 2012, the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) outbreak emerged after coronavirus, which passed through dromedaries, was transmitted to humans. Meanwhile, the Ebola outbreak was traced to the humans’ hunt for nonhuman primates’ meat and habitat fragmentation, with the pathogen likely transmitted from bats to nonhuman primates and then to people.
A 2020 study found that species that are threatened due to exploitation “have over twice as many zoonotic viruses” as other species threatened by other means. Experts attribute it to the frequent close contact between people and wildlife, as hunters, middle marketers, and consumers have some form of contact with species in the trading process. On top of this, other animals and people in the area are also exposed to the wildlife and its remnants and wastes, expediting the possible spread of diseases.
Wildlife trade also creates the perfect conditions for new diseases, as it stresses animals and subjects them to unnatural habitat and mixing during trade and transit.
If it is not yet clear with all these incidents that increased wildlife interaction due to habitat destruction and illegal wildlife trade (IWT) is the main reason for global outbreaks, then I don’t know what is.
The Philippines is in the center of this, with widespread habitat destruction and illegal trade. The country has become an important source, transit, and destination point in IWT, which is now the fourth largest illegal trade worldwide behind illegal drugs, arms, and human trafficking.
While a handful of people gain from IWT in the country, millions more of Filipinos are affected by its dire consequences. We have to act now before another deadly pandemic affects us.
In 2001, Republic Act 9147 or the Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act was passed into law. While RA 9147 is a groundbreaking law that expands protection coverage to all wildlife and empowers regulation agencies, there continues to be an increase in IWT cases, threatening extinction of wildlife species and elevating risks of zoonotic diseases.
RA 9147 must be urgently amended and strengthened, as IWT has become increasingly sophisticated and organized two decades after the law’s passage. Crime syndicates are exploiting legal loopholes owing to the law’s vague language, small fines and penalties that fail to serve as deterrent, and limited enforcement capacity.
The value of illegal wildlife trade in the country is estimated at P50 billion or $1 billion annually. However, as we have seen with COVID-19, we will surely lose more if we do not act immediately.
The House of Representatives passed House Bill 9833 revising the Wildlife Act of 2001 on third and final reading. In the Senate, two bills remain pending in the committee level – Senate Bill Nos. 2078 and 2079, filed by Senator Cynthia Villar and Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri, respectively.
We call on the good Senators of the Republic of the Philippines to pass the bills. A strong legal framework will improve enforcement mechanisms, strengthen inter-agency cooperation against IWT, and result to a more forceful and dynamic response to this transnational crime.
Stopping IWT through a solid legal basis is a worthy investment against the life-threatening and damaging consequences of potential outbreaks and pandemics especially to Filipinos. (BMB-Wildlife Resources Division/ Atty. Theresa Tenazas)