While there is no evidence that a pandemic of zoonotic origin, such as Covid-19, has been linked to air transport, the aviation sector can play an important part in mitigating the risk of future disease events and pandemics by strengthening efforts to combat animal smuggling, says a report produced for ROUTES, an international group of agencies and transport industry representatives fighting wildlife trafficking. Based solely on public reporting, around 50 high zoonotic risk trafficking instances are identified every year across the world. The report details identification methods and other recommendations for the industry and government agencies to follow. Meanwhile, Air Canada has become the first North American airline to attain illegal wildlife trade certification by IATA.
Within air transport, live animals and meat products from domesticated and wild species engender the most significant risk of zoonotic spillover – the transfer of a pathogen from the original host to either humans or another species (see graphic below) – and illicit supply chains constitute a potential vector through which a zoonotic disease could mutate to infect humans.
“Smugglers exploit the speed and efficiency of air travel and air cargo to transport animals and animal products, often bringing different species in close proximity for long periods of time,” said Ben Spevack, Senior Analyst at C4ADS and author of the report ‘Animal Smuggling in Air Transport and Preventing Zoonotic Spillover’. “This illicit activity circumvents animal safety requirements around health examinations, vaccinations or quarantine, creating extremely favourable conditions for zoonotic disease spillover.”
Around 800,000 pathogens and microorganisms linked to emerging infectious diseases currently exist in animals, including 500 new coronavirus strains identified in bats alone. Birds are known to carry over 60 different zoonotic diseases. The World Organisation for Animal Health estimates three new infectious diseases emerge from animals every year. A disease that crosses the animal-human interface can evolve into one that is transmitted from human to human (or from human to animal). The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated the destructive potential of zoonotic spillover, says the report, and the frequency, severity and financial impacts of zoonotic disease events are growing.
“Understanding the vectors for zoonotic disease – and, by extension, the dangers of illicit animal shipments – is fundamental for designing effective zoonotic disease mitigation policies and protocols,” advises Spevack in the report.
He notes the aviation industry has measures in place to ensure safe transit of humans and goods through the proper channels. “While such regimes can strongly reduce the risk of zoonotic spillover within regulated animal trade, illicit flows of animals or animal products circumvent these measures,” he points out.
“Given the nature of illicit supply chains – the introduction of species into new geographies, the consolidation of multiple species in close quarters, the stress-induced suppression of animals’ immune systems and the lack of mitigation measures such as pathogen surveillance testing – the continuation of animal smuggling along air routes is a factor in increasing the likelihood of future disease outbreaks.
“However, the aviation sector, working in partnership with enforcement authorities, conservation stakeholders, and the scientific community, has the opportunity to help reduce the risk of zoonotic spillover. Collaboration with traditional counter-wildlife trafficking stakeholders and awareness informed by analysis of animal smuggling can decrease the risk of public health crises.
“As air transport stakeholders recover from the impacts of Covid-19, it is important that future pandemic prevention programmes include counter-animal smuggling initiatives as a key risk mitigation activity.”
The report offers a number of recommendations to airlines, airports and enforcement authorities, based on capacity and role. All stakeholders should incorporate zoonotic spillover considerations into counter-animal smuggling protocols and practices, and coordinate activities related to countering wildlife trafficking with animal health authorities to minimise the risk of animal disease. It advises airlines and airports to increase proactive passenger awareness measures on the public health risks of animal smuggling. They should also inform aviation policies and practices on counter-smuggling and zoonotic spillover mitigation initiatives with data on trends in smuggling of animals and animal products.
Enforcement authorities are encouraged to increase public reporting on seizures, increase incentives among law enforcement for interdiction of illicit shipments and monitor the development of automated detection and other emerging technologies to build capacity to identify illicit animals or animal products in airport screening systems.
The report was produced by C4ADS (the Center for Advanced Defense Studies), a non-profit focusing on analysis and reporting on global conflict and transnational security issues, as part of the USAID Reducing Opportunities for Unlawful Transport of Endangered Species (ROUTES) Partnership.
“Faced with the current health crisis caused by the novel Covid-19 virus, the world and the aviation sector are unfortunately grappling with the turmoil that zoonotic diseases can pose. Understanding of air transport’s risk from animal smuggling could be instrumental in reducing global vulnerability,” commented Michelle Owen, Routes’ Lead. “Comprehensive training and protocols are already being adopted by airports, airlines and enforcement agencies to combat wildlife trafficking. These efforts can help mitigate the risk of future outbreaks.”
“The current crisis has highlighted the global need to better understand what factors can increase the risk of zoonotic disease occurrence. ACI joined the fight against wildlife trafficking in 2016 and supports the United for Wildlife Buckingham Palace Declaration signatory airports and ROUTES partners to combat wildlife trafficking. Airports can integrate wildlife conservation initiatives into their sustainability umbrella, helping to protect biodiversity, sustainable livelihoods, stability and global health,” said Juliana Scavuzzi, Senior Manager Environment, ACI.
Added Sebastian Mikosz, SVP of Member and External Relations at IATA: “As the world works to recover from Covid-19, the focus is shifting to building back better and with greater resilience. Science tells us to expect more pandemics in the future and combatting the smuggling of wildlife can be viewed as a key prevention measure.”
The Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT) certification awarded to Air Canada was introduced by IATA last year and recognises actions taken by the airline to strengthen defences against wildlife trafficking in line with the 11 commitments of the Buckingham Palace Declaration. These commitments include adopting a zero-tolerance policy regarding illegal wildlife trade, improving the industry’s ability to share information about illegal activities and encouraging as many members of the transport sector as possible to sign on.
The IWT module was developed with support from ROUTES and is a component of the IATA Environmental Assessment (IEnvA), which includes a two-stage certification process, both achieved by Air Canada. IEnvA is a programme developed specifically for the aviation sector and demonstrates equivalency to the ISO 14001:2005 environmental management systems standard.
Air Canada Cargo has developed and introduced controls and procedures to reduce the likelihood of transporting illegal wildlife and illegal wildlife products. In 2018, it became the first airline to achieve the IATA CEIV Live Animals certification, which aims to meet the highest standards in the transport of live animals.
“There’s a connection between how wildlife is treated, how it can spread zoonotic disease and how we’ve ended up with the potential for pandemics in the world,” said Teresa Ehman, Senior Director of Environmental Affairs at Air Canada.
Top photo: An attempt to smuggle bobtail lizards was thwarted by Australian Border Force at Perth International