A wild animal market in Vietnam selling herons, reptiles, otters and rodents has sparked fears new diseases could be unleashed following the coronavirus outbreak from China.
The animals sold at Thanh Hoa Bird Market – one of the country's largest wildlife markets – are slaughtered and cooked alive for customers from the 50 stalls stretched along a roadside outside Ho Chi Minh City.
Flies can be seen hovering over the produce as waste drips into drains.
It is barely 11 weeks since coronavirus is thought to have originated at a similar market in Wuhan, China.
Animal charities warn the trade could spark a new virus and called for an immediate global ban on wild animal markets.
But at Thanh Hoa – and hundreds of other similar markets across the world – life, and death, continues apace. Even rabid dogs are traded, it is claimed.
Thanh Hoa market straddles National Highway 62, 50 miles south of Ho Chi Minh City.
Describing scenes during trade on Friday, one horrified visitor said: “Birds are displayed from morning tonight. Products were kept for long enough to attract flies and looked very unhygienic.
“The waste is sprayed down into the drain. Buyers find it unbreathable due to the stink of bird droppings and food.
“Live birds are locked in cages and in some cases legs are tied into bunches. Sellers also sew their eyes, tape beaks, break wings, pluck feathers and use a mini gas cylinder to quickly cook them alive. Dead ones are processed and stored.
“Besides birds, it is easy to find turtles, snakes, otters, rabbits, rats and poultry. One trader said he provides about 70kg of bird every morning and sold about 80,000 birds – equal to 16 tons – every year.”
China banned the selling and eating of wild animals in an attempt to control the coronavirus outbreak – widely accepted to have emerged at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan.
Covid-19 is the latest outbreak believed to have originated in animals.
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SARS originated at a market in Guangdong, southern China, in 2002. Swine flu stemmed from pigs in Mexico in 2009 and the Zika virus of 2014 was carried by mosquitoes.
Snakes, rats and bats were sold there before the shutdown on January 1.
But in many countries bans are not in place – as The Mirror's exclusive images from Long An, southern Vietnam, reveal.
Experts warn markets are hotspots for “zoonotic diseases” which can be transmitted from animal or insect to humans.
Last month local birds were linked to the virus H5N6. Some 23,000, mostly ducks and chickens, were culled at 10 farms, Vietnamese media said.
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Days ago, after mounting pressure, the government ordered its Ministry of Agriculture and Rural development to draft a ban on wildlife markets and submit it no later than April 1. But Mai Nguyen, of Humane Society International, called for a swift clampdown on trade.
She said: “The existence of markets like Thanh Hoa is a both animal cruelty and public safety concern.
“All manner of animals and birds are crammed together in often filthy, unsanitary conditions.
This could result in a health disaster.”
And she claimed: “It could contribute to the extinction of species.”
Investigators have witnessed disturbing trade in wild animals across the globe.
HSI president Jeffrey Flocken said: “China has taken decisive action but wildlife markets, particularly in Asia and Africa, are widespread and could easily be the start of disease outbreaks in the future.”
HSI warned Indonesia has hundreds of “extreme” animal markets offering a perfect breeding ground for viruses.
At the Tomohon market in North Sulawesi, live dogs sit alongside dead ones burned to a crisp with a blowtorch.
Claiming rabid dogs were traded in Indonesia, Mr Flocken went on: “We know from our investigations rabies-positive dogs are sold and slaughtered for consumption in these markets.
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“Given that dogs are caged and slaughtered alongside snakes, bats and rats, Indonesia must take measures to ensure it does not become the next point of origin of a deadly virus.
“The trade can spawn global health crises like the coronavirus, SARS and the deadly bird flu.”
Just last month HSI teams in Africa witnessed the sale of scales from endangered pangolins – an anteater and a suspected host of coronavirus.
The scales are used in Chinese medicine despite having no proven value.
The pangolin has been identified as a possible source of the current pandemic. South China Agricultural University said coronaviruses carried by it are a close match to Covid-19.
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This remains unconfirmed and it is not yet clear whether pangolins were sold in Wuhan.
So efforts to locate the source go on – with snakes and bats also touted as possible hosts.
In India, pangolins once on sale in Manipur are now understood to have been taken “underground” to avoid detection following a 2017 trading ban.
Markets in Africa also pose a risk.
HSI investigators in Lofa County, Liberia, captured footage of pangolin scales being sold at a market four weeks ago.
Wendy Higgins, HSI director, said: “A local guy was arrested. Pangolins in Africa are targeted by poachers for scales mainly, but also for their meat.”
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Poaching, trafficking and selling of eight pangolin species is banned.
But hunting persists and is said to account for a fifth of all illegal wildlife trade.
HSI warnings were echoed by Prof Andrew Cunningham, Deputy Director of Science at the Zoological Society of London.
He said: “Live wild animal markets are ideal places for zoonotic virus emergence to occur.
The highest priority for the protection of human health is, therefore, to ban markets and regulate any future wildlife trade.”
And Dr Richard Thomas, of wildlife trade charity TRAFFIC, said: “Regulating markets for disease control is essential and efforts to curtail trade in wildlife products should be a priority.”
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