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Wildlife rescue centres struggle to treat endangered species in coronavirus outbreak

Last Thursday morning Louisa Baillie drove down the five-kilometre dirt track that connects her jungle home in the Amazon rainforest to the main road. At the junction, she parked, hiking the rest of the way into Mera, a town of about 8,000 people.

After filling her backpack with fruit and vegetables from local sellers, she grabbed some leaves and set about plucking termites off trees along the roadside, stuffing them into a bucket containing small fragments of the insects’ nests. Baillie works as a veterinarian at Merazonia, a wildlife rescue centre in Ecuador. The termites were dinner for Andy the anteater, a baby recently confiscated at a police checkpoint.

Andy the Anteater at Merazonia wildlife rescue centre in eastern Ecuador.

“Normally we do the shopping twice a week, but at the moment moving around is quite difficult,” she explained by phone as she popped succulent leaves into the mouth of a baby sloth snuggled up against a teddy bear. The youngster had fallen out of a tree a few weeks ago and was now on the mend. “Now we’re trying to do more regular, smaller shopping trips, going into the village and seeing what we can pick up as we go along.”

A few days earlier, Ecuador had begun restricting movement within the country to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

With about 100 animals in the rescue centre, including capuchin, tamarin and howler monkeys, kinkajous and a puma, Merazonia faces an uncertain future. Most of the animals here were confiscated from the illegal wildlife trade in South America and many can’t be returned to the wild. Much of the centre’s funding comes from volunteer tourism. But with the borders closed to all foreign travellers, that won’t last long.

Louisa Baillie feeds a baby sloth.

“Our day-to-day operations rely on the fees that volunteers pay, which covers the cost of food and medicine for the animals,” Baillie said. Though some volunteers have become stuck in Ecuador since the borders closed on 16 March, “as soon as the borders open, almost everyone will go home”.

As the coronavirus spreads from country to country, disrupting global travel and the economy, wildlife rescue centres are struggling to make ends meet. The Centre for Orangutan Protection in Kalimantan, Indonesia’s section of Borneo, has temporarily shut down to minimise the spread of the virus. Others like Merazonia rely on tourism dollars to care for their animals. Since China’s shutdown of Wuhan in January, visitor numbers have plummeted at Asia’s wildlife centres.

Edwin Wiek runs Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand and is secretary general of the Wild Animal Rescue Network, a group of east and south-east Asia wildlife rescue groups. At his wildlife rescue centre and elephant refuge in Phetchaburi, “we have lost 80% of our funding”, he said.

Elephants rescued from tourism and logging gather at the Elephant Nature Park in the northern Thai province of Chiang Mai.

“We have over 700 animals – 25 elephants which require a lot of care and food, about 30 bears and 400 primates.” If he cut 50% of his staff, the rescue centres could survive one or two months, perhaps three, but any longer would be untenable, he said. Under Thai law, Wiek can’t apply for a bank loan because he operates as a charitable foundation, not a business. “If I can’t find alternative income in about three months from now, I either need to open the cages and let the animals go, which I can’t do, or I have to put them down. We’re trying to do everything we can.”

In Chengdu, a city of roughly 16 million people in western China, NGO Animals Asia operates a refuge for 48 vulnerable-listed moon bears rescued from farms. Bile extracted from the bears’ gallbladders is a staple of traditional medicine in the country.

After China implemented widespread measures to stall the spread of the coronavirus, the price of masks and medications spiked. “It’s been very scary,” said Ryan Sucaet, the centre’s vet team director. “At our sanctuary we have a really geriatric population of bears that are very reliant on pain relief. It was a challenge to get through those times. We’ll never let the bears’ welfare be compromised, but it came at a cost.” A shipment of 10,000 medical masks for workers disappeared, likely intercepted by the government for frontline medical workers. “Making sure our stockpiles remain high now is our biggest concern.”

Elsewhere, Free the Bears, an Australian non-profit with sanctuaries in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, had plans to rescue a male and female bear in mid-February. Both had been caged in Vietnam’s bile farms for more than 18 years. But when the Vietnamese government temporarily halted all transport and trade of wildlife in the country, it had unintentional consequences; the rescue was suddenly up in the air.

Eventually, Free the Bears was given the go-ahead to quickly move the bears to their Cat Tien sanctuary. “But for now it’s prohibited again to move wildlife within Vietnam,” said Rob Mabin, communications manager for the organisation.

A bear enjoys a dip at a rescue centre in Vietnam.

Despite fears about money in the short term, there is a silver lining to the crisis for Asia’s wildlife rescue workers. In late February, China issued a temporary ban on the trade and consumption of wild animals which is expected to be signed into law later this year. Vietnam’s prime minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, has asked the country’s agriculture ministry to draft a directive to permanently end illegal trading and consumption of wildlife, motivated by fears that the animals are a source of disease.

Jill Robinson founded Animals Asia 22 years ago. For decades, the group has pushed governments to end the wildlife trade. Now its goals are finally coming to fruition. “We’ve already seen significant change relatively quickly from authorities,” she said from Hong Kong. Though it remains to be seen if the ban will affect animals used for medicine, she said, “the world is waking up to the fact that it’s impossible to humanely farm these under strict biosecurity conditions”.

“We are realising we need to change our habits and our attitudes around the way that we live with wildlife, and our stewardship of wildlife.”

Find more age of extinction coverage here, and follow biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston and Patrick Greenfield on Twitter for all the latest news and features

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