As we watch the world slowly peek out from behind the COVID-19 curtain — with state after state and country after country loosening stay-at-home and travel ban orders — most of us are waiting with bated breath to see what happens next. The people, families, and communities of Earth want to heal and move on from this pandemic… but what does the reality of that look like? How can we protect ourselves and our loved ones from more outbreaks like this one?

The answer may surprise you: protect endangered wildlife.

In spite of the ongoing viral rumor mill that continues to focus on bats as the cause of infection in humans, research shows otherwise. The critically endangered pangolin appears to be the missing link; bats likely infected pangolins, and the pangolins infected humans.

If you don’t know what a pangolin is, you’re not alone. Anyone who has not traveled to Asia and experienced outdoor food markets with live animals (like the one in Wuhan, China) is unlikely to have ever encountered a pangolin. It is illegal to hunt or sell them, yet — believe it or not — more than 200 tons of pangolin scales have been confiscated by authorities in the past three years alone. Poached to meet the demand for pangolin scale soup, they are the most trafficked mammal worldwide.

3 Ways to Help Prevent the Next Pandemic

COVID-19, HIV, SARS, MARS, and Ebola are all examples of deadly zoonotic diseases (those that pass from animals or insects to humans). In fact, more than 75% of all human viruses can be traced to wildlife. To think that a pangolin is responsible for this health crisis is almost inconceivable, but genetic studies verify that it is an unavoidable truth. It has never been more clear that the time has come for the people of Earth to align our interest in wellness and self-preservation with the need to protect endangered wildlife and keep them out of human hands.

With that in mind, here are three ways the world can better protect endangered wildlife and, by doing so, directly benefit humanity and help us to prevent the next pandemic.

  1. Ensure Animals Are Worth More Alive Than Dead: Businesses worldwide face an uncertain post-pandemic future, yet the business of poaching and trading in illegal wildlife remains very lucrative. If we reverse that trend, we can minimize humanity’s exposure to infected animals. To accomplish this, we need to focus on supporting systems that generate revenue off of protected, living animals.
  2. Create Sustainable Alternative Livelihoods: Part of deterring poachers involves attracting them with financial incentives to take up the opposite calling: wildlife protection. For example, on a regional scale, this means creating more local roles in the field of wildlife protection, such as fence builders, anti-poaching personnel, wildlife rangers, and various biodiversity programs. Keeping the animals alive then becomes a constant, legal source of revenue that can be made more attractive than the risk of punishment for poaching.
  3. Link Poaching to Pandemic in the Public Consciousness: Wildlife poaching is not yet sufficiently associated with the massive risks to humans and economies worldwide that it truly poses. In October 2019, a poorly regulated market in China served as a petri dish for COVID-19 due to the most trafficked mammal in the world, and it’s time for us to step up and make sure this never happens again.

High-risk markets that provide cover for the illegal wildlife trade — thereby risking our health and economies — should be banned. It’s up to each one of us to speak up and support programs that stop the illegal wildlife trade at its source before it reaches the markets. Stopping poaching may be the only avenue we have to prevent the next global pandemic. The need is urgent, and the time is now.