Today is Earth Day. A day to celebrate the amazing place where we live, but also a time to reflect on our relationship with Planet Earth and, as ‘normality’ resumes, our reliance upon it.
This last weekend, the British public left their houses en masse. With every reason to celebrate, spend saved up money, and meet loved ones, but we must not forget why we were stuck in our homes for months… Indeed, COVID-19 still presents a significant risk, and as recorded global deaths exceed 3 million, efforts need to focus on bringing it under control, but also to ensure it never happens again.
Earlier this month, the World Health Organisation (WHO) concluded its investigation into the origins of COVID-19. It issued a call to action for global governments to suspend all markets “where live animals are held, slaughtered and dressed”, noting they “pose a particular risk for pathogen transmission to workers and customers alike”. They concluded that COVID-19 most likely originated from a species of bat, infecting humans via another, yet to be identified, animal species. Where the mixing of animal species, usually from unknown origins and of unknown health status, coupled with poor hygiene and housing conditions, provide the ideal conditions for the emergence of new pathogens that include zoonotic viruses (like COVID-19).
Live animal markets were also implicated some 17 years ago, following the SARS pandemic. Then the live animal markets were initially suspended but soon resumed, unchallenged and unchanged, despite the risk.
Whilst SARS was not as deadly as COVID-19, it is a type of coronavirus. Why no action was taken then by the international community is not understood, as on hindsight, their permanent closure could well have prevented COVID-19. Clearly international pressures must be applied today, to end these known incubators of dangerous disease.
But what does emergent disease have to do with Planet Earth?
Evidence unequivocally demonstrates that planetary health, biodiversity, climate change, and emergent disease are interconnected. Whereby the often-exploitative human activity on the natural world (i.e. animal abuse, wildlife trafficking, land conversion, habitat fragmentation, etc.) drives biodiversity-loss and climate change, and further, directly corresponds with a sharp increase in human infectious disease originating from animals (known as zoonoses). Reducing such practices, will likely aid the restoration of nature and reinstate its ability as a protective barrier against disease.
Nature should not only be regarded as the ‘silver bullet’ to lessen climate change (as concluded in ANIMONDIAL’s previous blog), but it is also considered the ‘silver bullet’, to protect us all from emergent diseases. Check out ANIMONDIAL’s 5-point plan to better protect nature.
What can the travel and tourism sector do to help?
The sector has the ability to influence change, particularly in those destinations that rely on tourism revenues. Such action will not only help to discourage animal exploitation, and encourage the better protection of animals and nature, but it also has the means to mitigate future pandemics.
By example, FOUR PAWS, the international NGO is calling on the travel and tourism sector to help bring an end to the dog and cat meat trade, which they evidence to proliferate zoonotic disease in tourism destinations. Their investigations in Cambodia, Indonesia and Vietnam have revealed that up to 30 million companion animals are killed every year for their meat in Asia and are frequently slaughtered in markets alongside other species, contributing to the threat. This is highlighted by this infographic:
Whilst few western tourists are likely to venture to intentionally eat either dog or cat, tourists are exposed to risk in marketplaces, restaurants and along trade routes frequented by tourists. Dogs and cats, along with many mammals, are implicated in the transmission of disease. Most notably the fatal diseases of rabies and cholera but, due the species mixing in the live animal markets, could well be implicated in the next emergent disease.
FOUR PAWS is seeking the support of the travel and tourism sector to raise concern with the authorities and encourage an end to the dog and cat meat trade. FOUR PAWS sets out the dangers of the trade to public and animal health and provides recommendations for future action, in the full report.
The COVID-19 pandemic magnifies numerous systemic problems, including widespread exploitation of natural resources, ineffective environmental protection, social and economic inequalities, and substandard healthcare systems. If we are to truly build back better, actions must break down the silos, exploring the synergies and convergence between climate, biodiversity, and public health.
» Support the FOUR PAWS pledge to protect local people and tourists alike from zoonotic disease
» Sign up to Build Back Better for Animals and nature
How to tackle risk in your supply chain
Animal activities and experiences in tourism can pose a significant risk to both the health and safety of people and animals. Businesses operating or selling such activity should therefore make every effort to assess risk and manage it effectively. However, as with most matters concerning animals, there are multiple factors to consider, not least the fact that there are thousands of species, each presenting different issues. Understanding the potential risks and how to mitigate them is crucial.
Risk mitigation is essential to any business, to protect against financial loss and damage, and to sustain operation in the event of an unforeseen happening.
Risk for tour operators and travel agents that offer animal experiences include the probability that the activity could have a negative impact on the welfare of the animal, or worse, threaten their survival. Equally, the animal interaction may place people – whether a customer or an attraction employee – at risk of injury, or worse. Animals are after all unpredictable, and therefore potentially dangerous in nature.
Consider captive Asian elephants by example. These species are classified as a Category 1, ‘hazardous animal’, by UK Defra’s Hazardous animal categorisation1, noting the species’ ability to “cause serious injury or be a serious threat to life, on the basis of hazard and risk of injury, toxin or disease”. The guidance advises against unsupervised contact or without a suitable barrier between the animal and the public. Yet direct (supervised and unsupervised) contact between elephants and tourists is commonplace and encouraged in elephant camps across Asia. Whereby activities like elephant bathing (considered by some as a responsible alternative to riding) pose significant risks. Having visited such facilities, I do question whether those risks have been duly assessed and considered.
I would recommend that all travel businesses, and their suppliers, assess risk and consult hazardous rating criteria before permitting direct animal interaction of any kind. This applies to all animals, not only those large in stature, but also smaller mammals (such as primates), birds (like ‘birds of prey’), reptiles (including snake species and crocodilians), etc. This should apply to both wild animals in the wild and those in a captive environment. In close proximity to people, particularly when avoidance is prevented, most animals are likely to trigger their ‘fight-or-flight’, stress-response and enact their respective defence mechanism(s) (e.g. teeth, horns, spikes, poison, etc.). On my drafting of ABTA’s Animal Welfare Guidelines in 2012/3, I had included Defra’s hazardous animal classification, and it is included in ABTA’s 2nd Edition of the Guidelines (2019)2 – a valuable resource. For instance, these Guidelines recommend that all elephant contact without a barrier is “Unacceptable”.
It is not only an animal’s ability to cause physical harm that should be considered. Many animals can also carry, or are infected by, disease transmissible to humans. These are known as zoonoses, or zoonotic diseases, which can pass between vertebrate animals, including humans. Zoonoses include bacterial infections, such as Salmonella, but also fungal infections, parasites and viruses (i.e. Ebola, Avian Influenza (H5N1), SARS and coronavirus (CoV)). For instance, holding of a reptile can result in the transference of Salmonella to a person’s hand (which may then be used to pick up food), an animal’s bite might transfer rabies, whilst airborne disease (e.g. Influenzas) can transfer through close proximity. Outcomes can range from mild to serious illness in humans and even death.
Equally, it is important to recognise that human diseases can severely impact on other animals, particularly those closely related species. For instance, a monkey eating a half-eaten sandwich may pick up a cold that could be deadly (and could be transmitted to other members of the troop). It is also not uncommon for tourists viewing primates in the wild, to undergo a medical check-up, and for imposed viewing distances to be no closer than a sneeze can carry.
It is estimated, globally, that zoonoses cause one billion cases of human illness and millions of deaths occur every year. Whilst zoonoses constitute 60% of the reported, emerging infectious diseases, with 75% of the newly detected human pathogens over the last three decades, originating in animals. As the world is increasingly interconnected, emerging zoonoses in one country can potentially constitute a threat to global health security3.
Risk assessments must therefore consider zoonoses, the risk of transference, and implement effective preventative measures.
When it comes to identifying the right measures to prevent the risks of physical injury and zoonotic disease infection, many would advise preventing direct contact between people and animals of wild species (in particular). Although, where that does take place, preventative measures are recommended.
Appropriate preventative measures include:
- the prevention of transmission through the washing of hands (and other areas, where relevant) with soapy water or effective sanitiser, both before and after the contact;
- the prevention of infection by not touching or feeding wildlife, or consuming meat from wildlife, or domestic dogs or cats;
- the detection of disease by screening captive animals (particularly new arrivals) and where relevant, maintaining effective quarantine measures;
- the control of the interaction through the requirement of appropriate conduct and constant supervision and vigilance.
Whilst, unethical and intrusive preventative measures (not advocated but to be aware of) include:
- the deterrence of a ‘fight-or-flight’ response: removal of an animal’s claws, teeth or sting (etc.);
- taping jaws shut;
- the use of sedatives;
- the separation of young for hand-rearing;
- the prevention of the animal’s capacity to avoid participation (such as being held or tethered, or the pinioning of birds – removal of part of the wing or the clipping flight-feathers);
- Euthanasia, before all other options which preserve life have been considered.
Customers, employees, the welfare of animals and reputations must be protected at all cost.
For a tour operator or travel agency, which may offer thousands of products, or excursions, involving animals (wild and domestic), it is understandably difficult to ensure the appropriate safeguards are incorporated into its operations and supply chain. It requires careful assessment, the identification of risk and the expertise to advise accordingly. As well as knowledge of the plausible risks across all commonly kept animal species!
I am pleased to report that this expertise is now available through the ANIMONDIAL-Preverisk partnership. This unique partnership combines over a decade of animal welfare in tourism expertise with auditing and post-audit excellence. It offers tour operators and travel agencies, and their suppliers, the opportunity to ensure all associated risk is identified, measured and controlled. Furthermore, it ensures that the animal activities and experiences meet appropriate animal welfare standards that includes their protection from fear and distress (mitigating any ‘fight-or-flight’ response). ANIMONDIAL and the Preverisk Group joint services can provide tour operators and travel agencies with all they need to review current activities, mitigate risk and include ‘animal-friendly’ alternatives.
- Defra (2012) Hazardous animal categorisation. Secretary of State’s Standards of Modern Zoo Practice. UK Government
- ABTA (2019) Animal Welfare Guidelines. Available at: https://www.abta.com/industry-zone/abta-shop/abta-animal-welfare-guidelines (Accessed 26/02/2020)
- World Health Organisation, Zoonotic Diseases. Available at: http://www.emro.who.int/fr/about-who/rc61/zoonotic-diseases.html (Accessed 26/02/2020)