Illegal trafficking in exotic animals has drastic implications for both the contraband animals and humans. Live animals that are smuggled from country to country frequently die en route in unspeakable conditions. Those that survive may introduce diseases to other species and possibly to human beings. The ease and frequency with which people travel nowadays brings with that convenience potentially life-threatening pandemics, as well as environmental degradation and the extinction of species as endearing as the elephant, rhinoceros and tiger. Veterinarians play a crucial role maintaining public health safety by tracking, assessing and controlling animal diseases. And Penn Vet is at the forefront of this important work.
The trade’s role in the spread of dangerous diseases is well-documented. The dreaded Ebola virus is found in chimps, gorillas and bonobos and could be spread to humans in Ebola-free countries through the handling and eating of “bush meat.” The simian foamy virus, smallpox, chicken pox, tuberculosis, measles, rubella and yellow fever are also found in a number of ape species. HIV, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus that causes AIDS, was proven to have originated in monkeys, and the meat of many apes is smuggled routinely to countries far distant from where those animals live naturally.
Smuggling of live animals, as well as animal parts or products (leather, medicines, trophies, jewelry, religious symbols/amulets), is highly lucrative – by Interpol’s estimates, between $7 and $20 billion annually. Such trade not only imperils biodiversity and the health of ecosystems, it also threatens livestock, international trade, rural livelihoods and, ultimately, public health and well-being. While neither the US Department of Agriculture nor the US Fish and Wildlife Service can accurately quantify either the size of this trafficking or its financial impact globally, both organizations agree that it is huge, and carries with it a very real potential for a global health catastrophe. For example, it is estimated that approximately five tons of bush meat is smuggled by passengers through Paris Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport every week. Expatriate communities in the US and elsewhere create a demand, which is usually met through smuggled products.
The US has some of the world’s strictest laws pertaining to the importation of animals, animal parts, fruit, vegetables and plants. While travelers may fume about not being allowed to bring a favorite delicacy home from an international trip, the intent is to keep unwelcome and potentially dangerous pathogens and microbes out of our country. However, enforcing these laws is incredibly difficult and most countries rely on “spot” inspections of cargo vessels (through which the vast majority of smuggling is effected) because thorough inspection of all vessels, cargoes and other importing vehicles would be prohibitively expensive and unwieldy.
At Penn Vet, as part of her PhD thesis, Dr. Nikkita Patel is using computer methods originally devised to interdict international drug smuggling networks to investigate where to focus surveillance and other efforts to disrupt the illegal global trade in wildlife. As a veterinarian interested not only in the well-being of helpless animals, but also in public health, Dr. Patel is uniquely positioned to evaluate how these interdiction efforts will both protect targeted species and impede the spread of infections dangerous to both animals and humans around the world. Dr. Patel has successfully mapped reports of illegal elephant, rhinoceros and tiger trades, including both the countries where the trade originated and the country for which the contraband was destined. This data will be invaluable to the interdiction efforts of all countries complying with international trade agreements, allowing them to direct their resources more efficiently and effectively, as well as identify rapidly any disease outbreak and respond accordingly. Lessons learned from the spread of HIV/AIDS, avian influenza, SARS and other frightening diseases tell us that we must do more to control potential pandemics, and veterinarians continue to be on the front line of this vital work.