While COVID-19 is almost exclusively a human disease, it’s clear there can be spillover into animals. That’s probably of greatest concern in pets, because of the amount of contact we have with them and the susceptibility of some pet species (especially cats and ferrets). However, while we have less contact with other types of animals, there might still be important implications. We don’t know the range of species that can be affected and the potential animal health impacts in each species. We also don’t want this virus establishing itself in wild animals. Ultimately, we want to keep this a “human problem” by preventing movement into animal populations, for the sake of animals and ourselves. The outbreak of COVID-19 in lions and tigers at the Bronx Zoo raised concerns about risks to wild tiger populations. While there’s less human contact with those animals, they often live in fairly (surprisingly) close proximity to people, and there can (normally) be a lot of people visiting parks and reserves. The risk of infection is probably low, but we want to avoid any health hazards in threatened or endangered populations if we can.
A recent ProMed mail post discussed COVID-19 in a tiger at Pench Tiger Reserve in India. It’s unclear whether the tiger actually had COVID-19. It seems that park staff were concerned because of the reports of COVID-19 at the Bronx Zoo and that their response was out of abundance of caution rather than an actual diagnosis. Regardless, it’s something that needs to be considered in areas where people can get close to wild cats. As countries in South Asia went into lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus, criminals in the illegal wildlife trade took advantage. With authorities focussed on enforcing lockdown restrictions, poachers felt less likely to be caught.
As a result, authorities in India, Pakistan and Nepal said there was a surge in illegal hunting, including of endangered animals and rare birds. To make matters worse, the economic consequences of the Covid-19 lockdown also saw people who had lost their livelihoods turn to poaching to support themselves. While these countries have battled the illegal wildlife trade for many years, the recent lockdown has shown that the black market are well entrenched. As India went into lockdown, there was a rise in poaching registered in many parts of India: From wild birds in cages, to animals caught for bushmeat, to prized commodities in the international illegal poaching tradeAs India went into lockdown, there was a rise in poaching registered in many parts of India: From wild birds in cages, to animals caught for bushmeat, to prized commodities in the international illegal poaching trade. While forest services continue to remain operational as they are a part of essential services, the lockdown and the fear of getting infected has restricted the forest personnel from patrolling, which has resulted in wildlife poaching. Coordinated global wildlife research during this period of crisis will provide unforeseen opportunities for humans to forge a mutually beneficial coexistence with other species, and to rediscover how important a healthy environment is for our own well-being.