Millions of animals from emerging disease hotspots are imported into UK, study finds

A tortoise
A tortoise
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Coronavirus Article Bar with counter ..

Millions of wild animals are being legally imported into the UK from emerging disease hotspots, it has emerged, prompting a leading animal welfare charity to warn that the practice is risking another public health crisis.

Animals including African pygmy hedgehogs, snakes, lizards and tortoises are transported to the UK to be sold as exotic pets from Africa, Latin America and Asia in their hundreds of thousands, according to a new study from World Animal Protection.

While legal, the practice is condemned by campaigners as cruel, and the charity has warned that it presents a significant public health risk as 70 per cent of all zoonotic emerging infections are thought to originate from wild animals, while over 35 infectious diseases have emerged in humans since 1980 – including Covid-19 and Ebola.

The study, which used data obtained from a freedom of information request to the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA), found that from 2014 to 2018, 2,492,156 amphibians, 578,772 reptiles, 150,638 mammals, and 99,111 birds were imported into the UK for commercial purposes, including the exotic pet trade. 

Spillover: the origins of Covid-19 and why the next pandemic may already have started
Spillover: the origins of Covid-19 and why the next pandemic may already have started

The animals were imported from 90 countries, including from regions identified as emerging disease hotspots. Countries such as Singapore, Ghana, Indonesia, El Salvador, Cameroon, Nicaragua and Madagascar annually annually exported thousands of reptiles and amphibians to the UK over this five-year period, according to the report.

Though public attention is typically focused on the illegal wildlife trade, the charity argues that this is “dwarfed” by legal trade into the UK, “despite the public health risk it presents and the cruelty and suffering it causes”.

Animals imported into the UK with associated public health risks include reptiles, which the report claims have a “high possibility” of carrying potentially dangerous pathogens such as Q fever and Lyme disease.

Other examples include amphibians, which “have the potential to act as vectors for zoonotic disease transfer” of diseases such as salmonella, as well as bats, which have been implicated in the transmission of Covid-19, Ebola, Hendra and various rabies-related viruses. 

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As such, World Animal Protection is calling on the UK Government to champion a global wildlife trade ban and end the import and export of wild animals into the UK at the G20 meeting of leaders this coming November. 

“This evidence shows that the legal wildlife trade into the UK is causing suffering to millions of animals and risking another public health crisis. We must not overlook the dangers this poses; harmful and deadly pathogens can be transmitted to humans regardless of a wild animal’s legal status,” said Peter Kemple Hardy, wildlife campaign manager at World Animal Protection.

“In a post-Covid world, we should demand nothing less than a global and permanent ban on the commercial wildlife trade, to protect wild animals, human health and the planet.”

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