By Sharon Atieno

With zoonotic diseases, transmitted from wildlife to humans, continuing to reign havoc in many countries of the world- the latest being COVID-19 which has infected more than 900,000 people globally- the World Animal Protection is sounding an alarm over the international trade of reptiles and calling for a ban to wildlife trade.

Despite captive reptiles being documented as potential carriers of pathogens, such as parasites and viruses, and in particular of human illness-causing bacteria, it is estimated that reptiles comprise 20% of the global live animal trade.

The Ball python is Africa’s most traded live wild animal with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), estimating that over three million of them have been exported off the African continent since 1975.

A Ball python

A recent report released by World Animal Protection shows that 99% of all Ball python global imports originate from just three countries: Togo, Benin and Ghana.

“The trade of Ball pythons as exotic pets is a massive global market that has impacted and depleted millions of animals in Africa over the last several decades. These animals suffer cruelly from capture, throughout to a life of captivity,” said Edith Kabesiime, Wildlife Campaign Manager at World Animal Protection- Africa.

The report further shows that Ball python “ranching” in West Africa is dependent on wild capture (which involves them being physically dug out from burrows, stuffed into sacks often filled with other snakes) that can result in distress, injury, death and disease.

Moreover, the organization has found that at the voodoo markets in Cotonou and Ouidah in Benin, West Africa, thousands of animal derivatives line the stalls, providing a breeding ground for disease as they wait to be sold to locals.

These practices threaten the conservation of wild populations and have negative impacts on animal welfare, as the animals suffer cruel treatment during capture, transport, onward sale and slaughter. It is also a potential threat to human health as what was experienced in China could possibly happen at the voodoo market because of poor handling of dead and live animals, a statement by the organization reads.

Baboon skulls at a voodoo market in Benin
Photo credits: Aaron Gegoski

“There is no doubt that these voodoo markets are a hub for the wildlife trade industry. There are various species of dead monkeys, cats and birds, as well as pangolins – which have found themselves suspect to be at the center of COVID-19,” said Kabesiime.

“There are also many animal welfare concerns. Prior to their death, the animals traded for the voodoo market are kept in poor hygiene conditions. They are housed in cramped cages, often left to sit in their own urine and faeces.”

She adds that these conditions are cruel incubators for the transmission of diseases and the evolution of more virulent pathogens. Lack of hygiene combined with direct human contact can create a breeding ground for existing and emerging infectious diseases.

“We urge individuals to stop wildlife trade for their own good and animals as well. Wild animals belong in the wild, not in conditions like the ones found at these voodoo markets,” she urged.

With China banning the consumption of land-based wild animals due to COVID-19 and Vietnam following suit, the organization notes that action is needed to end the exotic pet trade, not only for animal welfare and biodiversity, but also to protect human health.