The United States is the world’s biggest consumer of imported
wildlife and wildlife products. According to the U.S. Fish &
Wildlife Service, more than one
billion individual animals were imported into the country between 2000
2004. Many were sold as pets. In the same time period, more than 11
million pounds of bushmeat
and other animal products crossed into our borders.
Often, this trade in wildlife not only breaks the law, but delivers health risks to the nation’s residents, too.
In New York City, a major hub for the trade, the Wildlife Conservation
Society is working closely with the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention (CDC) to uncover these potential threats. More than 70
percent of zoonoses (diseases that affect both animals and humans) stem
from human contact with wildlife. Monkey pox, SARS, and HIV/AIDS (via
human infection with simian immunodeficiency virus) have all impacted
public health through the consumption or trade of wild animals.
“The movement and mixing of humans, wildlife, and domestic animals
as part of the illegal global wildlife trade encourages transmission of
disease and emergence of novel pathogens,” said Dr. William Karesh of
WCS’s Global Health program. “Our pilot project, still in its early
stages, will help identify whether pathogens are entering the U.S. via
bushmeat and other illegal wildlife.”
Now, at main entry points
for people and goods into NYC and the U.S., inspection officials and
health experts have taken hundreds of samples of wildlife and wildlife
products. Since the project’s launch in 2008, they have uncovered parts
from at least 14 species—great apes, monkeys, rodents, and bats—tucked
inside luggage and mail parcels.
Though the researchers have
just begun analyzing these samples, they have already found evidence of
two strains of simian foamy virus. The body parts of three endangered
primate species—two types of mangabey and a chimpanzee—contained the
viruses. These strains can infect humans, but whether they cause any
human disease is yet unknown.
Experts are also checking primate samples for flavivirus and filovirus, but these tests have been negative so far.
“This project is part of WCS’s One World One Health initiative, which
addresses the health needs of humans and wildlife locally and
globally,” said Dr. Steven Sanderson, WCS president and CEO. “WCS has
pioneered the practice of helping governments around the world find
potential human public health threats by monitoring and caring for
wildlife populations in their habitats."
In addition to its
health and ecological implications, wildlife trade has had enormous
economic impacts. The SARS outbreak of 2003—associated with the trade
in small carnivores and ultimately traced to bats—cost the global
community an estimated $40–50 billion dollars in reactive health
measures, declines in travel and commerce, and other cascading economic
Keeping all of this in mind, monitoring and
preventing health threats from the illegal trade in wild animals and
related products at our nation's gates is essential. Investigators
assert that such detection efforts are a critical component of national
WCS’s Dr. Kristine Smith, who serves as the
chair of the New York Bushmeat and Health Committee (a subcommittee of
the New York Department of Health’s Animal Working Group), said at a
recent health symposium, “This is the type of inter-agency cooperation
that’s needed to protect the public from possible diseases that may be
entering the country.”