The LA Zoo has been closed since March, but it’s back open for limited capacity as of this week.
Once again families can take their kids to see lions, tigers, and bears, but there are some behind-the-scenes animals that the public won’t see.
For example, Cricket is an Indian white-eye, a yellowish green songbird the size of a sparrow that sits in a cage inside the LA Zoo’s aviation conservation center, which is not open to the general public. Cricket was trafficked from Vietnam in 2019 and wound up being confiscated with a group of 20 other birds at LAX.
The LA Zoo often gets the call when animals are discovered at the port of LA or local airports, says curator Mike Maxcy.
“We’ve had everything from cobras inside Pringle cans, to birds wrapped in socks attached to people’s legs, to even primates,” he says.
Maxcy says there’s big money in wildlife trafficking, and also huge risk.
His colleague, LA Zoo conservation director Jake Owens, points out the origin of COVID-19 was zoonotic, meaning the virus jumped from an animal, likely a bat, to a human at a market in Wuhan, China. That kind of transfer can happen anytime animals are taken out of their habitats.
“A bird that’s in the wild, in a forest that’s not degraded, where they can live their normal lives, isn't that big a risk for a disease,” says Owens. “It’s when we’re tearing down the forests, when we’re putting them in these small areas because that’s all that's left, or catching them, putting them in cages, stacking them up in bushmeat markets or wildlife markets, to sell them for food or for songbird trade, that’s when the risk comes in.”
Owens is the first ever conservation director at the LA Zoo. He used to work on wildlife protection in China and on issues of wildlife poaching and trafficking in Africa. He refers to some of the wildlife markets there as “hell on earth,” and pandemics are waiting to happen. And so, he says the arrival of COVID-19 was not shocking.
“Everything people are experiencing because of coronavirus — not going to bars, not going to school, not going to work, losing their houses — is due to wildlife trade,” says Owens.
Wildlife trafficking is big business, worth billions of dollars. It comes just behind arms and drugs.
The LA Zoo’s aviation conservation center hosts a variety of songbirds that have been trafficked. People pay thousands of dollars to acquire these mostly male birds, which can serve as status symbols and also are used in competitions where the best call can win money.
Snatching these birds from their habitats and bringing them halfway across the globe is not only illegal, says Mike Maxcy, but also incredibly dangerous. They can bring zoonotic diseases with them, which can impact humans and local animal species if they’re unleashed.
“The bird flu, you’ve got West Nile virus, you’ve got H1N1, all those can have a connection with birds,” reminds Maxcy.
The LA Zoo reopening means it can start generating some revenue again from ticket sales, which ultimately helps fund the programming that can help fight trafficking and pandemics.
Jake Owens says it’s important to remember that zoos aren’t just arks for species diversity, but they also can extend their expertise and the money they raise to other parts of the world.
Many countries that see higher levels of wildlife trafficking don’t have the resources to do much about it. The LA Zoo looks for conservation partnerships where it can have an impact. One example is the funding it provides to the Wildlife Trust of India so it can research the local gharial population, a kind of endangered fish-eating river crocodile.
“This year the biologists weren’t able to go out because of COVID They had a complete lock-down in India,” says Owens. “So they called the farmers and the fishermen who were able to go out. And they were able to relocate three nests for a total of 94 hatchlings that successfully hatched out.”
Owens says the zoonotic origins of COVID-19 have created support for conservation and anti-trafficking initiatives. But he’s worried most governments will try to disincentivize traffickers by increasing fines and jail time. He says that approach won’t solve the root of the problem — the poverty that drives people to destroy habitats and displace animals in the first place.
“This is the only thing that some people have to do for their livelihoods,” says Owens. “That’s a root issue that we as conservation biologists and as cultures, societies, and governments … haven’t addressed.”
Until that changes, says Owens, the next pandemic could be around the corner.