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Wild Bird Trade & the Global Pandemic

Caged birds at Indonesia's biggest bird market

The COVID-19 pandemic has no doubt made many more people aware of the world of wildlife trading. The impacts of increased human-wildlife contact and the zoonotic diseases that can follow, are now more known than ever before. 

However, as we have adjusted to our world with the Coronavirus and are dealing with the issues of the moment like vaccination availability, the nature of ongoing restrictions or finding our new normal – let us not forget how we got here. 

As a global society, we have been disregarding the known linkages between human health and wildlife conservation crises. 

Thankfully, the pandemic seems to have reduced wildlife trafficking, due to movement restrictions and reduced demand. However, just as we all have shifted our lives to the virtual space, so have illegal traders. And going online with their products may allow them to reach greater markets as restrictions ease. 

The next pandemic could come from the wild bird trade that fuels the markets for food, medicine and pets. Each year millions of birds are funnelled through unethical and unsanitary conditions, often illegally. 

The scale is truly enormous. In Indonesia one market alone saw 19,000 birds from 206 species pass through. In the space of only three days. 

Helmeted Hornbill
Helmeted Hornbill, Source: Sanjitpaal Singh,

The demand for pet songbirds from Asia is pushing many species like the Black-winged Myna or the Straw-headed Bulbul toward extinction. Populations of the Helmeted hornbill have become critically endangered due to the trade of its casque (upper mandible) – sold as decorations. 

And this trade is happening across the world. Birds like Painted buntings and the Lear’s macaw are popular caged pets, especially in North and Central America. Meanwhile, Red Siskins from South America are also edging closer to extinction due to an unfortunate trait that makes them produce rare, desirable colour varieties when crossbred with canaries. 

Painted Bunting
Painted Bunting, Source: USA Agami-Shutterstock

Although the US and Europe have installed bans on large-scale tropical bird imports, loopholes still allow trade to continue. Despite this, millions of wild birds still find their way into the US through black market trading, most popularly – the canary. The US’s demand for wild pets and exotic feathery or furry collectables makes up a shocking 20% of the world’s wildlife market. 

A recent petition by the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC) and the Centre for Biological Diversity (CBD) was sent to US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the Centre of Disease Control (CDC), demanding an end to all live wild animal imports. 

To halt the destruction of species and the known risk of future pandemics, we must come together and take action to shut down all illegal and large-scale animal and bird markets to and reduce the development of zoonotic pathogens.