How can HERMES help guard against future pandemics by mitigating illicit wildlife trade?
For those who aren’t yet familiar with HERMES, it’s an innovative solution for passenger screening and border management control, developed by the WCC Group.
Although one of its primary functions is to combat illegal immigration, crime, and transit of potential terrorists, its features can deliver a range of other benefits, such as mitigating illicit trade. In this article, we’ll look more specifically at using HERMES to mitigate illegal trade in wildlife products and animals.
Emerging infectious diseases
The global wildlife trade can promote a systemic spread of diseases, resulting in epidemics that can develop into a pandemic affecting many different populations, including humans, livestock, and native wildlife, or even threaten complete ecosystems.
Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, studies have shown the connection between wildlife trade and infectious zoonotic diseases that can spread epidemics. Humanity has witnessed several outbreaks attributed to farmed animals and wildlife trade, including EBOLA, SARS, BIRD FLU, and H1N1. These outbreaks had fatal consequences, with COVID-19 alone responsible for hundreds of billions of dollars of economic damage globally.
Although the origins of the coronavirus are currently not yet proven, there are strong indications that it might have come from a wildlife source with a direct link to the wild animal trade in China.
In general, hunters, middle marketers, and consumers experience multiple contact risks when trading animals. Each contact represents a potential risk of a new zoonotic disease and an epidemic outbreak.
Illegal wildlife trade
Illicit trade is a multi-billion dollar industry that operates through transnational criminal networks. Illegal wildlife trade, one of the most pervasive and sinister forms of illicit trade, is also one of the most profitable industries. The UNEP and OECD estimate the value of this trade to be between $50 and $150 billion per year, making wildlife crime the fourth most lucrative illegal business after narcotics, human trafficking, and weapons.
The illegal wildlife trade impacts ecological issues, meaning the destruction of entire species and devastated ecosystems. In addition, it can have significant social and economic implications by creating disruptive imbalances in ecosystems for sustainable growth. The human cost of illegal trade in wildlife can be measured in lives lost to the criminal networks involved and livelihoods destroyed by the erosion of a natural economic foundation.
How has the world been responding to such threats?
The United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) regulates wildlife trade. One of its main pillars refers to the regulation of trade in species, focusing on those threatened with extinction, such as fish species whose natural stocks have been declining considerably.
However, urgent concerns have been raised about the trade in exotic species due to evidence of the relationship between such activities and the proliferation of zoonotic diseases.
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, and to prevent future zoonotic disease outbreaks, on World Health Day (April 7, 2020), more than 240 organizations from around the globe presented a pledge urging the WHO to recommend that governments worldwide permanently ban live wildlife markets and the use of wildlife in traditional medicine.
Ending the illegal trade in wildlife is not a trivial challenge. It requires a concerted and cooperative effort between many sectors.
Inevitably, there are multiple potential points of failure in the command and control procedures designed to manage international trade. In turn, this can lead to ineffective institutional responses. For example, personnel at Maritime ports, airports, and land border crossings may be open to corruption, providing opportunities for a range of criminal activities. Also, there are legal gaps, loopholes, and unenforceable provisions in laws permitting the legal sale of wildlife products. As a result, the proceeds of wildlife crime flow across borders and raise questions about the effectiveness of current security measures.
Responses with strategy and tactics
Rather than attempting to eradicate pathogens or even the wild species that may carry them, a more practical approach includes decreasing the contact rate among species, especially human contact, at each interface created by the wildlife trade. This approach is analogous to the social distancing response to the current pandemic. In addition, since wildlife commerce functions as a system of scale-free networks with many hubs, these contact points provide opportunities for monitoring and control that can optimize the effects of regulatory efforts.
Emerging technologies, like HERMES, can enhance law enforcement at border management and control points, directly and indirectly combatting the wildlife trade and potentially preventing future global health crises.
Governments need to strengthen the capacities of law enforcement to share information across borders to keep pace with these changes. Tools, such as HERMES, allow both border control agents and policymakers to address gaps in monitoring systems and surveillance by processing information from various databases and checking the data against multiple watchlists, whether from the national police forces or international bodies such as Interpol, for example.
Hereafter, it is not a ‘bulletproof’ solution to combat illegal wildlife trade, but it represents an effective method to prevent the transit of people related to dangerous markets like this. Thus, potentially avoiding future pandemics like the one in which we are still living.
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