Washington, D.C. — According to a paper published today in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, consumers surveyed across five Asian countries and territories who reported greater awareness levels of COVID-19 and its impacts were less likely to buy wildlife products. The research suggests an effective way to reduce consumption of wildlife that has a high disease risk.

Authors from World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and GlobeScan of Socio-demographic correlates of wildlife consumption during COVID-19 analyzed survey data gathered in 2020 from respondents across Hong Kong SAR, Japan, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam about self-reported wildlife consumption patterns and attitudes towards wildlife markets and COVID-19. The authors built regression models based on respondents’ socio-demographic attributes and assessed which attributes correlated most strongly with wildlife consumption behavior. They also used these models to assess how a hypothetical behavior change intervention might affect wildlife consumption in the future.

Across all markets, respondents with greater awareness of COVID-19 and its impacts were 11-24% less likely to buy wildlife products than respondents with lower levels of COVID-19 awareness. Future wildlife consumption could be further halved in a number of countries and demographic classes if campaigns could combine greater awareness of COVID-19 with higher support for wildlife market closures.

The survey data the paper analyzed were released publicly in April 2020 and highlighted widespread understanding even early in the COVID-19 outbreak about the connection between wildlife consumption and the coronavirus, from animal-to-human disease spillover. Subsequent polling by WWF and GlobeScan in 2021 found that wildlife consumption had dropped in surveyed countries by 29 percent as a result of COVID-19.

“As the world continues to seek ways to prevent future zoonotic disease spillovers, this knowledge can help better inform consumer demand reduction and behavior change approaches to address one of the biggest spillover risks: people consuming wildlife in high risk settings,” said lead author Robin Naidoo. “Our research highlights ways that are likely to be very effective in reaching members of the public who are still buying and consuming wildlife species in these settings.”

A key driving force of emerging infectious diseases of zoonotic origin, like COVID-19, is the trade and consumption of wildlife, particularly of high-risk taxa and species housed together and sold in crowded, unsanitary market conditions. To prevent future pandemics, it is critical to address risky wildlife consumption in regions where various species are frequently used for traditional or cultural purposes, such as food, luxury items or for perceived health benefits.

WWF is advocating for international interventions to be included in pandemic prevention efforts that address environmental drivers of zoonotic disease outbreaks, and not focus only on post-spillover approaches like early detection systems and therapeutics. Critical interventions include shutting down high-risk wildlife trade, halting deforestation and expanding efforts to reduce consumer demand for high-risk wildlife and wildlife products.

The U.S. government can help spur change in parts of Asia where these drivers pose the greatest threat of emerging disease through its foreign assistance, diplomatic efforts and support for additional research. This should include better integration of global health and conservation programs in hot spots for emerging infectious diseases, as well as increased funding to agencies such as USAID, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Inspection Service to enhance the capacity to prevent high-risk and illegal wildlife trade and to reduce zoonotic spillover risks, both in the U.S. and internationally.

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Notes to Editors:

  • Wildlife consumption refers to human use (e.g., as food or medicines) of terrestrial wild animals or their derived products, often through purchases in open, in-country markets and roadside stalls.
  • Socio-demographic correlates of wildlife consumption during COVID-19, Robin Naidoo, Daniel Bergin and Jan Vertefeuille, Nature Ecology & Evolution (2021)