Notes from webinar 1: The commercial use of animals and pandemics

A future without pandemics is a series of five think-tank webinars bringing a truly unique Chinese perspective to a global challenge. Hosted by One Health and ACTAsia’s Institute of Caring for Life Academic Research & Education (iCARE) host. The commercial use of animals and pandemics is the first webinar.

Originally broadcast on 27 April 2020, a subtitled version of the second in our series of five webinars will soon be available.
You’ll find transcribed notes on the page below. And if we didn’t have the chance to answer your question at the first webinar today, please scroll down and find our answer.

Listen to a subtitled recording of the webinar here.

Please note interpretation may not be 100% accurate due to simultaneous translation. 


Dr Barbara Maas, academic and international wildlife conservation expert will also address the underlying welfare issues compounding the risk of pandemics in commercially farmed wild animals. Founder and CEO of People for Nature and Peace.

Zhang Xiao Hong, Data Analyst, with expertise on the numbers of farmed animals in China and the national demand for meat. She will address the issues around the commercial use of animals and risks of pandemics through farming.

Dawn PeacockCo-host, Programmes Director for ACTAsia, and professional in animal management, education and animal welfare issues in South East Asia will co-host the first seminar.

Pei Su, Co-host, Founder and CEO ACTAsia, sociologist and authority on animal welfare, humane education and environmental issues in China, will co-host the first seminar.

In summary: key messages:

  • The link between zoonotic pandemics and wildlife is contact between wildlife and humans
  • High welfare conditions are not possible for commercially-farmed wild animals
  • Poor welfare among groups of animals increases the risk of disease, and therefore zoonosis which makes up 70-80% of emerging diseases
  • Soaring demand for meat in China is fuelling commercial exploitation of animals
  • All wild animals should be removed from China’s livestock list as domestication of animals takes thousands of years

Notes from webinar 1

Pei Su: Thank you very much for joining us at our first webinar. Today we are going to talk about legislation, culture, animal welfare, public health and education. We hope that deep insights and global perspectives might allow all of us to think about the commercial use of animals and prevent any further risks. We hope these webinars will also focus on the National Livestock Heritage Resource List, which is currrently out for a consultation phase that will end by the 8 May, considering whether some of these wild animals can be removed from the livestock list, especially the fur-bearing animals, also deer, amphibians, reptiles, mallards and pheasants. We are going to consider these issues from multiple perspectives to achive better public health and ecological balance in order to prevent COVID-19 and similar pandemics in future. So thank you everyone.

1. What is the link between the exploitation of animals and pandemics?

Dr Barbara Maas: COVID-19 is an important issue that has reminded us we are all connected – perhaps more than we thought and more than we wanted.

COVID-19 is an important issue that has reminded us that we are all connected – perhaps more than we thought and more than we wanted.

The bad news is that this crisis is of our own making. But that is also the good news because it means that undoing it and preventing recurrences is within our reach. This requires changing our behaviour and from the colossal changes people and nations around the world have made in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, we now know that mass changes are possible.

So, to get back to your question: The link between wildlife trade and pandemics is contact. Before there were so many of us, wild animals mostly lived away from us or had limited contact with us. Habitat’s had a balance of species. But when people move into a natural area, they start to change it and the first thing to go are the big predators. And when that happens, other animals can reproduce more quickly and grow in number. Logging, road building and settlements etc. all facilitate contact. We now know that biodiversity buffers us against pandemics, but once people start to catch, butcher, sell and eat animals, there is contact that otherwise wouldn’t exist. When we put them into farms, they become biologically stressed, which means that their biological function is impaired. And this applies particularly in intensive farming situations. Too much light, not enough sleep, discomfort, pain cramped conditions, fear, they suffer from thirst, all of these risk factors are there in intensive farming. When animals are stressed, one of the things compromised is their immune systems, which are supressed and stressed animals cannot fend off diseases. Stressful conditions that are ongoing and repeated situations of severe stress have the strongest effect on the immune system. Pathogens multiply more readily in a stressed animal than in a healthy one, whose immune system is working well. Farms and markets therefore are an ideal breeding ground for pandemic viruses. You have a perfect storm of susceptible animals in close contact with humans.

2. Can we farm wild animals intensively and expect them to have good welfare?

Miss Zhang: First of all we need to confirm the purpose of farming for these animal farmers. The only purpose for them is to make money, which means they have to squeeze down the costs. And intensive farming is exactly designed to lower costs. Good welfare farming means higher costs because they need more space, bigger rooms for the animals, higher rent and to buy additional materials to accommodate them, all of these are extra costs. So good welfare and intensive farming are actually contradictory to each other. Only when in the following situation is good welfare possible, when people are willing to buy animal products at a higher price because these animals were rasied in a good welfare environment, that’s possible. When animals are skinned alive, and the fur is still bought by customers, it’s not possible for us to have good welfare. Only when customers reject buying such fur products could the animal farmers be forced to turn to a higher welfare way of raising and farming animals? So public opinion can help us to change the welfare conditions, but there is also a precondition: the economy has to reach a certain level so the public are able to pay a higher price for better welfare products. And they have to be aware that animals do feel pain and fear and they have emotions as well. They do deserve better lives before being slaughtered and if the consumers are willing to pay a higher price for that, that’s going to be a gradual change.

Miss Zhang, do you want to talk about the intensity of animal farms in different countries and give us some data?
Different countries have very different populations and different natural resources. Animals husbandry is to meet demand of human beings for meat, for fur and eggs etc. Let’s take a look at the US, New Zealand, South Africa – these countries all have large areas of land and large populations, and relatively low pressure to provide enough meat for their own people. They also export a lot of animal products. And it becomes a pillar for their national economy. Although South Africa and New Zealand are husbandry countries, the number of pigs and chicken raised is quite low. In New Zealand, in one year 1.28 million, in South Africa a few million. But in China around 420 million pigs are made into products every year. But other countries are different. Countries like China, India and Japan where the population is bigger and there are fewer resources the situation is different. India is a special case because of religious reasons, many Indians are vegetarians and they have less people who eat pork. They have less pressure in terms of providing enough meat for their population. Japan has high density of population but still overall its population is quite low and they have abundant resources. And Japanese people are accustomed to eating fish rather than other animals. While in China we have the largest population in the wrld and huge pressure in terms of meat supply. It’s the only country with more than 100 million pigs. The number of sheep and goats is also higher than in any other country in the world per capita. It’s a fact that we cannot rely on animals we raise by ourselves. In many cases China has to import from other countries. Let’s compare the epidemic situation between these nations. The epidemic situation is closely related to the standard of public health, the number of animals being raised and the need for meat etc. Both the US and China have a large number of farmed animals. Also these two countries have a relatively high ability ot test and treat viruses, but stil we have epidemics. For example, mad cow disease which happened in 2003 caused an economic loss of billions of dollars. In 2009 swine flu, and later bird flu etc. Big trouble for their own nation as well as many other nations. In China, as we know SARS has caused a huge loss and every year there have been bird flu cases. In 2008 and 2009 there has been African swine fever (ASF) which caused 40% cut in the number of pigs and caused the pork price to go up, which still hasn’t come down yet. And now COVID-19 – this we all know – if we look at New Zealand although it’s a husbandry country the total number of animals is quite small compared to other nations. The number of sheep they have is only one tenth of what China has. And pork and cow per capita are also low. And they have a quite high ability to maintain their pubic health system so they are doing pretty well right now in terms of epidemic situation. And once the public disease becomes an issue in India, there’s a higher number of fatalities there.

Dr Barbara Maas: Can I just add there are around 1.4 billion people in China, and meat consumption has gone up dramatically since 1990s. Every person in China eats average on 2.5 times more meat than they did in the 1990s. This increase exacerbates animal welfare issues. There is also still no animal welfare legislation to speak of in China. Elsewhere, in countries like New Zealand, which was mentioned earlier, animal where legislation is much more advanced and extends as far as crustaceans, which cannot be boiled alive. We are eagerly waiting for legislation like this in China. It would be a great step forward.

3. There are some misconceptions: if animals are breeding in captivity, does it mean they have good welfare?

Dr Barbara Maas: Intuitively this statement seems to make sense, but it is not correct. Reproduction is one of the main driving forces for any animal. All animals, including ourselves interact with environmental stimuli all the time – whether it is too hot or too cold, we walk into the shade or into the sun. We try to adapt to unpleasant environmental changes as much as we can. But at some point, these adverse conditions exceed our ability to adapt. In captivity, all control over our lives has been taken from us, whether a human in prison or animals in captivity– where or when we eat, or mate, noise we’re exposed to, levels of light, are in pain or discomfort etc. Our internal physiology is affected, which finds expression in life cycle parameters, such as longevity, growth and breeding success etc. But because breeding is so important, once it is negatively affected, conditions have become very bad indeed. Some species, such as the panda bear e.g., still don’t breed well in captivity despite all the attention and money that is lavished them. This is because their needs are not met and they are not happy where they are. Some other animals, such as farm animals, breed – but they live for a shorter period of time, a clear sign of poor welfare. It’s a trade-off. So, to establish whether welfare is good or bad, we need to look at a whole range of physiological, behavioural and indicators. They include breeding, longevity, body temperature, breathing rate, cortisol and other hormone levels, growth and so on. If only one of these is out of whack, we must acknowledge that welfare is poor. A dairy farm in China, which has 30,000 cows provides a useful example. The cows are kept in poor and crowded conditions and are finished after just 2-3 lactation seasons. These cows are pushed to their very limit and cannot cope with their environment. In contrast, on smaller farms, with a more relaxed, natural environment, cows may last for 10 seasons.

4. How are animals categorised in China’s legislation? Wild and domestic?

Miss Zhang: In China we have wild animals with five uses: food, fur, entertainment, Traditional Chinese Medicine, and experiments. It has to be updated. In the new draft, of concern, livestock has changed greatly. Originally only when that animal has undergone fundamental change can it be classed as livestock. But now as long as there are procedures, any wild animal can be categorised as livestock. Including also dogs and cats which are currently categorised as livestock.

Dr Barbara Maas: For a virus to spill over, it doesn’t care if an animal is livestock or wild or butchered in a market – all it needs is contact. Reclassifying wild animals as livestock for admirative and commercial reasons is like moving the deckchairs on the Titanic. It does not get us away from the problem! The risk is there with livestock too, the swine flu pandemic in late 2000s is believed to have origins on pig farm in Mexico from where it spread is a good example of the way viruses work. This H1N1 virus contained genetic material of 5 different influenza viruses from 3 species: 3 from pigs, 1 from poultry and one from humans. Intensive farming therefore creates ideal conditions for a pandemic. Reclassifying wild animals as domestic livestock will not help the animals nor the wider global community.

5. How will the law be updated – what is the process that will happen next?

Breeding and eating wildlife in China is still permitted. We don’t know how much the virus can be reduced. It depends on the revision of the wild animal protection law and livestock list. How much will it influence the reality.

6. What are the changes that are required to prevent future pandemics? COVID is enough for us to reevaluate what we’re doing with our animals.

Dr Barbara Maas: Wild animals must come off the list. They are wild animals. They may have been placed on the list for other reasons, but from a scientific perspective they have not been domesticated for hundreds or thousands of years. But even so, domesticated animals such as pigs and poultry, too, are susceptible to the same problems resulting from crowding and poor welfare conditions and particularly the immune system of pigs and humans are quite similar. If we want to prevent a repeat of this dire and costly situation, it’s important that wild animals are left to be just that: wild animals. They must not be farmed. Otherwise it’s a ticking time bomb. China is not only a great consumer of wildlife but also imports and exports animals to and from other countries, such as the EU and the US.  This means that we are buying viruses a first-class air ticket to travel around the world as exotic pets, as food or fur or as ornaments. We therefore need to introduce some serious changes in how we interact with wild animals, if we’re serious about preventing pandemics. 3 out of every 4 new infectious diseases in people originate from wild animals or livestock. New infections have also been increasing steadily. Between 1980 and 2013 there were 12,012 outbreaks of zoonotic diseases, comprising 44 million cases and affecting every country in the world. What does it mean? It means that we have a fantastic opportunity here. China has taken a tremendously positive step by banning the capture, sale, farming and consumption of terrestrial wildlife for food. But other uses, such as traditional medicine, fur, and pets etc. need to be included if we want to avoid further pandemics. A virus doesn’t care what the animal is farmed or used for. If you want to keep safe, eliminate contact, say no to the wildlife trade and consumption of any kind. Will we learn from this colossal calamity which has caused so much suffering and death, or will be go back to business usual after this? Who is to say that the next outbreak won’t be even bigger and more deadly?

The Ebola virus, too, originated from wildlife in Africa. It kills 90% of the people it infects. Now imagine a virus that’s as infectious as measles and as deadly as Ebola… Half of disease outbreaks since 1940 can be traced to changes in land use, where animals are pushed out of their habitat into closer contact with humans. I therefore strongly suggest social distancing from wild animals! Let’s leave them alone. It will keep us and them happier and safer. We have to move away from simply sticking plasters over festering wounds, because the next virus could be even worse.

Questions from the audience

South Africa has draft legislation to reclassify lions and rhinos and other animals as livestock, partly to supply Asian markets. How do we prevent the legislation being passed?

Dr Barbara Maas: The same people who are breeding lions and rhinos in South Africa have for decades tried to reopen international trade in all manner of endangered species. Take for example, rhino horn: high value, worth a lot of money on the black market, although it is nothing more than the stuff that makes up your toenails. Certain parties in South Africa have tried to overcome the ban on international trade in rhino horn for decades. Now they have changed tac to get around the ban on rhino horn by classifying them as livetock. Captive rhinos may be watered, live in unnatural conditions, but they are still wild animals, and have not undergone domestication. CITIES – the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species – prohibits trade in rhino horn but has been pressured to allow it. We need to all get together to fight it as illegal. Trading and using rhino horn are also illegal in China and Vietnam, the biggest markets. The push to reopen rhino horn trade is a commercially motivated move that has nothing to do with biodiversity conservation. Farmers claim that they could flood the market with farmed rhino horn, but I have calculated that, even at minimal levels of consumption, there are not enough rhinos left on earth to flood these markets. In addition, farmed wildlife does not relieve poaching pressure on wild populations. Potential consumers will receive a confusing message and prefer wild products anyway, which presents another problem.

With regards to distancing, does it include zoos?

Dr Barbara Maas: Yes, it should as many animals could and have got COVID-19, such as big cats. So most zoos are closed now, under the global pandemic.

Is the risk of disease spillover decreased when coming into contact with dead animals, rather than live animals?

Dr Barbara Maas: It depends on the pathogen and the duration of its survival on different substrates. Pathogens, including COVID-19, can survive for different lengths of time on cardboard, plastic, metal or in the air etc. People handling skins in fur farms e.g., are likely to still be at a significant risk. The pace of pandemics has increased. This pandemic has changed what we thought was impossible. We can do this!

What is the people’s reaction to the recent advice given by a Chinese minister to use Ta Re Qing (containing bear bile) to fight COVID-19? Do you think that chinese authorities could implement in a close future an educational programme to tackle the use of wildlife in traditional medicine & solve in the same time the social & economic linked to it?

Conservationists are outraged and angry. But they are a small minority of people utilising commercial trade. Bear bile pollutes the good name of TCM. We have to continue to campaign against this.

ACTAsia’s Caring for Life Education programme for children is taught in pioneer schools in China part of the Moral Education curriculum and these lessons cover the use of animals for the production of Traditional Chinese Medicines. Even the government talks about ‘ecological civilisation’ in schools, so they are aware of the problem. We have enriched our lesson plans to include the issues around COVID-19 and climate change as we believe the issues must be addressed through education.

Is there a reason Australia has not had an outbreak of disease from consuming wildlife?

Dr Barbara Maas: Even Australia, like most countries on earth have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic. This is not a China-only problem. The argument against wildlife trade applies to all continents. But in contrast to China, Australia is thinly populated. China, with its high human population, crowded urban centres and deeply entrenched appetite for farmed and wild sourced wildlife, constitutes the perfect storm for zoonotic pandemics. But the rules apply universally to any country.

Why do we identify as wild animals as the source of viruses? And what kind of wild animals?

Disease transmission between animals bats, civet cats, humans and transmission every way. Humans are the dominant species on the planet, making use of all animals on the planet. Lions for example will make use of all the animals around them, and will eat what ever this there. But not animals like a water turtle or polar bear. We’ve given viruses help to travel from one place to another. We are waiting for another panedmic which will mean we are done for.

This is Ceres Kam from the Environmental Investigation Agency UK. I would like to ask the panelists what your opinions are regarding the implications of the current ban, public opinions in China, and the new criteria for the livestock genetic heritage list, how will the new regulations/legislation affect species bred for medicinal uses, especially Asian big cats such as tigers, and pangolins? Will they be listed as livestock?

We don’t know as the list of livestock is just a draft for consultation and could end up being longer or shorter, and may or may not include tigers and pangolins, which is why we urge everyone to submit their own suggestions to the Ministry of Agriculture for which animals should be included in the catalogue of livestock.

There is an open letter to WHO with signatures from more than 100 organisations including Cambridge. It requires an international ban on wildlife trade. What do you think of it?

More than 200 conservation groups across the world have signed the letter asking WHO to force the closure of live animal markets to prevent future pandemics, and we support it. Pressure from WHO will help to make legislation changes now, because of the added risk of pandemics.

What do you think of canned-hunting, South African breeding of wildlife, like a safari zoo?

It’s not a natural habitat for wildlife. Visitors don’t see their natural behaviour. And breeding wild or endangered animals in captivity doesn’t help wild populations. Encroaching into their territory is the problem. We should keep our distance.

What would you consider the most important factor in emergence/spillover? Would you consider density as a major contributor?

The most important factor is contact between humans and animals. The second is density. The sheer quantity of all farmed animals in China cannot help but create a problem.

If we want to prevent animal trades and meat eating, we have to break certain entrenced stereotypes, such as meat eating is the soucee of protein. Then what do you guys think is the best way to do this?

Through our Caring for Life Education programme for consumers, we encourage people to think about the source of their food, and to reduce their impact on the planet. We help people understand how by reducing demand and changing behaviours, they can influence pratices and cultures they do not agree with. We agree, we have to break stereotypes around meat or animals being there to provide for us. We may think we have a better quality of life by having so many options open to us, such vast quantities of all the things we need, but it doesn’t mean we can overconsume meat and get away with it. Improvement will all require time, education, and law, and we work on all of these factors.