A version of this article was previously published in New Scientist.
As the media closely follows the handful of confirmed Ebola cases in the U.S., it's important to remember that the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa is still leaving widespread death, fear, and disrupted societies in its wake. Sadly, the social fabric of my homeland - Sierra Leone and neighboring Guinea and Liberia - continues to unravel as mistrust, paranoia, and uncertainty damage relationships and drive behaviors reminiscent of those in the era of the Black Plague centuries ago. We all hope this epidemic can be contained soon.
Yet will we learn to change our own behaviors that have directly caused this outbreak? According to the World Health Organization, people initially contract Ebola when they handle or eat infected wildlife, especially fruit bats, chimpanzees, monkeys, antelopes (pictured), and porcupines. While wild animals, in their natural habitat, are not a threat to human health, it is the contact with humans that can lead to disease transmission. Eating wild animals or bushmeat remains a common practice throughout Africa, either for subsistence or as a luxury item.
The great demand for African bushmeat, both within Africa and in international markets, is emptying forests of wildlife and catalyzing outbreaks of wild animal diseases in humans. At a minimum, governments should zealously enforce bans on the hunting and consumption of bats and apes, two groups most commonly associated with Ebola. The fear and social unrest generated by the recent Ebola outbreak may spur governments to take such bans seriously with the vigilant support of a concerned populace. Yet reducing the trade in bushmeat will likely remain challenging due to the high demand and profits associated with it and the fact that it is widespread and pervasive throughout Africa.
One collective action, however, can immediately reduce the chance of future outbreaks and spread of Ebola and other wildlife-based diseases. The world needs to act together to stop the illegal trade in live wildlife. We can start today by enforcing existing laws and regulations at airports and transport hubs across Africa. The trade in live wildlife out of Africa moves infected animals through human trade routes. This results in considerable contact between the animal and people, such as wildlife traffickers, wildlife collectors, local transport drivers, airport cargo handlers, airline passengers, and the wider public in destination countries. For example, one sick chimpanzee illegally collected in Cameroon and transported through Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea or Senegal - all major airline hubs in the transport of wildlife out of West and Central Africa - can spawn an Ebola outbreak with tragic consequences like the ones we are suffering through today.
If the world is serious about preventing outbreaks and epidemics of dreadful diseases, then it must act swiftly. Airline companies, as the international transporters of live wildlife, can rapidly and unilaterally make a huge difference. I challenge them to do the right thing and no longer transport live wildlife. I, for one, do not want to be a passenger breathing the same air as a suffering, sick animal crammed into the hold below. A potent brew of diseases is associated with captive wildlife, from psittacosis in parrots and salmonella in reptiles to Ebola in apes and monkeys.
The wildlife trade is also horrifically cruel, with death rates over 70 percent in many cases and conditions that should shake the moral and ethical fiber of any civilized society. The cruelty is indeed profound and lasts the remainder of a wild animal's life. Simply stated, no metric of 'comfort' can salve the brutal act of capturing a wild animal, subjecting it to the grave fear and hardship that wild animals experience when out of their natural habitat, and a sad, depressing end in captivity. Wild animals should be left in the wild, for all of our sakes.