Ethiopian Airlines (EA) has been accused of transporting thousands of wild animals from West Africa during the global Covid-19 pandemic, including many species of ‘high biosecurity concern’, such as bats and primates.
An investigation released last month by World Animal Protection has singled out Africa’s largest airline as a major player in the global export of live wild-caught animals. African grey parrots, civets, genets, primates, bush babies, marsh mongooses and Egyptian fruit bats are among the animals frequently flown by the airline to Europe, the US, Asia, Russia and the Middle East.
Alongside EA, the report also flagged Air France-KLM, Delta Airlines and Turkish Airlines for their involvement in the global pet trade.
Out of Africa: Two genets being trafficked for use in the exotic pet trade.
‘While the world still grapples with the pandemic, it’s important to remember that it all started with the wildlife trade,’ said Edith Kabesiime, wildlife campaigns manager of World Animal Protection Africa, in reference to Covid-19’s zoonotic origins.
She added: ‘Millions of people continue to be subjected to travel restrictions to stop the spread of disease, so it’s shocking that wild animals are being flown around the world, going under the radar.'
‘We could have a trojan horse situation as wild animals are known to pose disease risks.'
'We need to stop pathogens spreading, and the most effective way to do this is to stop them being placed on an airplane in the first place. The luxury exotic pet trade is a good place to start.’
World Animal Protection has accused EA of being the main air-based transporter of animals out of the West Africa sub-region, and said the trade threatened the existence of vulnerable and declining wildlife in West and Central Africa that could lead to irreversible ecological collapse.
The report, titled Cargo of Cruelty, paints a damning picture of the permissiveness of wildlife exploitation and the airlines enabling it.
Thousands of African mammals, birds and reptiles are poached for the exotic pet trade each year, including many critically endangered or threatened species.
Pythons and other snakes are taken from Africa to be sold as pets in Europe, Asia and North America.
It also exposes how social media platforms like Facebook are fuelling the largely undocumented and unregulated $45 billion exotic pet trade.
Everything from big cats and apes to rare tortoises and birds can be bought and sold on Facebook, Instagram, eBay and other online platforms, with conservationists accusing the tech giants of not doing enough to shut down poachers.
Animals caught up in the global trade are typically transported in cruel and cramped conditions, with more than 60 per cent believed to die of suffocation, starvation or infection before reaching their final destination.
Those that do make it to homes often don’t last long either because they aren’t cared for them properly or they’re abandoned.
The regulations meant to ensure the humane shipment of live animals are described as inadequate by conservations, and rarely, if ever, enforced.
World Animal Protection said it had serious concerns that Ethiopia Airlines in particular is not operating in compliance with International Air Transportation Association (IATA) Live Animal Regulations.
It highlighted how animals such as tortoises are packed so tightly, they struggle to fully extend their head and neck during the journey.
Tortoises have long been exported to the West to be sold as pets.
Airlines violating IATA regulations may be subject to legal penalties.
According to Patrick Muinde, research manager of the World Animal Protection's Africa office, the easy access to transnational commercial air transport and internet connectivity is having a serious impact on West Africa's last remaining wildlife populations.
‘Trade in Africa’s wildlife, even ones facing threat of extinction, is thriving on social media platforms while airlines have been shipping these animals everywhere. Africa is facing an ecological and economic crisis if wildlife trade is not regulated.’
The lack of robust wildlife smuggling laws in most African countries – with the notable exception of Uganda, where poaching can carry severe prison sentences, and even the death penalty – was also highlighted as a serious point on concern by Muinde.
Meanwhile, the continued travel restrictions have devastated conservation tourism and the communities that benefit from it.
Conservationists worry that the rise in both the legal and illegal wildlife trafficking could aid the spread of zoonotic diseases.
The World Health Organization (WHO) claims that 75 per cent of all known new infectious diseases in humans in the past 30 years originated from animals in the global wildlife trade.
The poor welfare conditions of transported animals and proximity to people create the perfect conditions for viruses to mutate and spill over to humans.
Bats are natural hosts of the ancestor of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which caused the emergence of Covid-19.
Wildlife campaigners have long warned about the increased risk of zoonotic viruses spreading to humans when animals are exploited, abused and brought into contact with people.
Kabesiime said EA and other carriers have a ‘responsibility to support efforts to halt the illegal and legal trafficking of wild animals’ and urged the airlines to transition away from ‘all transportation of wildlife for commercial exploitation.’
Efforts by NewsAfrica to reach Ethiopia Airlines for comment were ignored.