4 min read

Ebola: The Wildlife Connection

Ebola, stemming from the depths of West Africa, spanning the oceans, now creeping into the U.S. What does Ebola have to do with wildlife? Everything. 75 percent of recently emerging infectious diseases affecting humans are diseases of animal origin.

In the last 20 to 30 years, Ebola has killed tens of thousands of apes, like the chimp seen here.

It is contracted through contact with infected wildlife, i.e. through handling of or ingesting of infected animals. Chimpanzees and bats are the animals most often cited as carriers, but they are not the only animals.

The disease has taken hold of human populations largely because of our exploitation of wildlife. The illegal trafficking of wildlife out of Africa is a dangerous trend, threatening wildlife populations, and posing health risks to humans as well.

Chimps, slow lorises, monkeys, parrots and sloths are highly sought after in the illegal pet trade. It is a $15 billion business in the US alone. As a result smugglers will try anything to sneak them across the borders. (For more on the illegal pet trade, see: When Dogs and Cats Aren't Enough.)

Hidden in a man's underwear, these slow lorises were confiscated in Los Angeles Airport, destined to be sold as pets. (Photo: LA U.S. Attorneys Office/U.S. Department of Justice)

This trade results in considerable potential contact between infected animals and people, including traffickers, collectors, drivers, airport cargo handlers, airline passengers and the wider public in destination countries. It would only take one sick chimpanzee trafficked through a major airline hub to spawn a new Ebola outbreak (New Scientist).

But even more pressing perhaps is the persistent use of bushmeat. The poaching and consumption of "game meat" such as apes, porcupines, elephants, antelope, hippos, etc, can have dire consequences, not just to the wildlife populations, but to human health.

Bushmeat is a delicacy not just in parts of Africa, but worldwide. (Photo: CBS)

Ebola is only one of the diseases transmitted through infected meat. Researchers have found the first case of HIV originated from the consumption of infected apes. In addition, smallpox, chicken pox, tuberculosis, measles, rubella, rabies and yellow fever have also been contracted this way.

Bushmeat is not just an African problem. Between 2009 and 2013, US customs confiscated 69,000 items of bushmeat. (Photo: US Fish & Wildlife Service)

Humans' insatiable appetite for meat, their all-consuming ego in owning or hunting animals, and their general disregard for wildlife has taken its toll. Now we're paying the deadly price.

For more info on the bushmeat crisis see: On the menu: Bushmeat