By Rachael Bale, ANIMALS Executive Editor
As the World Health Organization today declared a global health emergency over the outbreak of coronavirus, concern has risen on all sides about the root cause of the deadly virus. Several of the early cases in China have been traced back to a fish and wildlife market in the central city of Wuhan (pictured above).
Wild meat is eaten around the world. For some, especially in rural and isolated areas, it’s the only way to get protein. For others, it’s a luxury item, something rare and special. And many people prefer to buy live animals because they’re guaranteed fresh and therefore seem safer than meat that’s been sitting out for who-knows-how-long.
But there are risks, as this outbreak has shown. Zoonotic diseases, which jump from animals to people, can be spread by the live animal trade. We’ve seen it with exotic pets, and we’ve seen it with wild animal consumption. Many of the early SARS patients in 2002 were food preparers and people who handled, killed, and sold wild animals.
In declaring a public health emergency today, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO's director general, expressed fear that the outbreak will jump in large quantities to societies that do not have the resources of China. He expressed confidence in China's ability to combat the new virus within its borders.
To help control the spread of the virus, the Chinese government recently put a moratorium on the wildlife trade. Will the market just move underground, as it has with so many other restricted products?
Nat Geo’s Natasha Daly reports that there’s growing momentum to make the ban permanent. Wild meat is not uniformly popular across China, and in some places, less than five percent of people say they’ve eat it recently. Fear of getting sick from a new pathogen is also a powerful motivator. But China’s temporary ban on the wildlife trade during the SARS outbreak was truly temporary. Will this time be different?
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Your Instagram photo of the day
Dinnertime: A mountain lion enjoys a meal of frozen elk on a winter's night in northwestern Wyoming. Mountain lions' diets can vary depending on the season and which animals may have migrated in (or out) of the area.
See: Why the mysterious mountain lion is the ‘Bigfoot’ of big cats
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Today in a minute
Dogs and opioids: The opioid epidemic has taken a terrible toll on people. But pets are not immune; dogs can be poisoned if they accidentally ingest their owners’ opioids, such as prescription painkillers, Nat Geo’s Douglas Main reports. For the first time, researchers have studied opioid poisonings in dogs, and they found that smaller breeds and younger animals are most at-risk. Thankfully, poisonings have apparently fallen as the number of human prescriptions has declined.
Retweeting, so to speak: Yes, chickadees amplify the alarm calls of others, but they are careful not to vocalize more specific information about the predator until they can verify it, a new study says. The warning mobilizes other birds to jump out en masse and harass a potential predator, writes Brian Gutierrez for Nat Geo. The word chickadee itself comes from the warning sound the bird gives out when a predator is nearby—Chickadee-dee-dee-dee-dee. The more “dees,” the more dangerous the predator.
The walking sharks: During the low tide, these sharks are the big predators on the reef. The three-foot-long creatures live near Australia, moving their pectoral fins in the front and pelvic fins in the back to plod along, writes Nat Geo’s Douglas Main. There have been nine types of walking sharks recorded so far, four of them since 2008, and they all evolved in the last nine million years.
Careful, elephants: Tea is the second-most popular drink on the planet, after water, and India is the world’s second largest producer, after China. Elephants wandering in the tea fields of northeast India have been falling into drainage trenches near the plants, causing injury and/or separation from herds, Nat Geo’s Rachel Fobar writes. As more land is being farmed for tea, the problem is getting worse for the endangered Asian elephants. One organization is developing a certification for "elephant-safe tea," to encourage growers to make their drainage ditches safer. Like turtles, elephants cannot easily right themselves if they fall on their backs.
Boeing birds: A pair of peregrine falcons has been nesting inside the massive factory south of Seattle where the 737 MAX is assembled. Now, with the assembly plant shuttered amid a crisis with the jetliners, it's time for the falcons to go, The Seattle Times reports. However, writes Evan Bush, “evictions are rarely simple, even when they might be in a creatures’ best interest. And peregrine falcons, who can fly half as fast as a commercial jet, are no ordinary creature."
The big takeaway
When it’s okay to feed the animals: Without human help, these rare Grevy’s zebras in northern Kenya (above) might not have survived a series of droughts. Only about 2,000 of these adult zebras, the largest members of the horse family, are believed to remain in the wild. A nonprofit group puts out bales of hay for the zebras in tough times, despite conventional wisdom that you don’t want to make wild animals too dependent on humans. Replies ethicist Clare Palmer: “It’s not as though there’s a living-independently-of-human-impact option for these zebras.”
Read: These rare zebras are dependent on humans, for now
In a few words
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The last glimpse
Whose land is it anyway? One group wants to reintroduce serious numbers of bison to central Montana’s plains, and to restock it with other disappearing wildlife. Another wants to maintain the cattle herds that ranchers have raised for generations. Both speak of urgency, either buying up land to preserve the land or hoping to keep it as it is to preserve a way of life, Hannah Nordhaus and Amy Toensing report for Nat Geo. “Species are blinking out,” says preservationist Sean Gerrity, with the American Prairie Reserve. “Habitat is going away. There’s a really short period, maybe 20 to 30 years, to do some really big stuff, and then the opportunity is going to be gone.” Cattle hand Leah LaTray has another view: “I think the prairie reserve’s endgame,” she says, “is to depopulate this area.”
Subscriber exclusive: Two visions collide in push to restore Montana plains