The G20 summit was a missed chance to make history for people and animals

We’re still knee deep in this pandemic, but with news of vaccines being rolled out, we’re finally beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel.

As with many diseases, we don’t yet know what lays ahead — this isn’t scaremongering, it’s just the reality. However, I’m sure we can all agree that we do not want to repeat this experience again in our lifetimes, so we need to look back at how this started and more importantly, how we prevent it.

COVID-19 is widely thought to have come from a market in Wuhan, where wild animals were being traded in unhygienic, stressful and unregulated conditions. Undoubtedly cruel, but this also creates a hotbed for diseases to flourish. While we are still not sure of the exact details, experts believe that COVID-19 originated in bats and was passed to humans via an intermediary animal — possibly a pangolin. This quickly became a global pandemic that’s claimed the lives of over a million people to date and destroyed the livelihoods of many more. It’s a catastrophic disruption that we have not witnessed on this scale in our lifetimes, affecting almost everyone on the planet.

That’s why, I had hoped that the G20 Summit would be the event that cemented itself into history books. I hoped it would go down as an event that changed the world — as the time world leaders came together to end the global wildlife trade.

There were some encouraging signs before the summit took place, that leaders of the G20 were going to take bold steps on the global wildlife trade. On the eve of the G20 Summit, the Communique from the G20 Agriculture and Water ministers meeting was published. It showed that ministers absolutely acknowledged the connection between human and animal health; referred to as the One Health approach, and it called for action to explore the risks and outlined steps to be taken. I thought we really could be edging closer to high level political commitment to the wildlife trade ban that numerous of people, scientists and NGOs have been calling for.

Alas, it wasn’t to be. The G20 leaders’ declaration was in this respect, underwhelming. They pledged to ensure that pandemics such as COVID-19 never happen again by ‘preparedness, prevention, detection and response’ and acknowledged the need for long-term solutions to address the gaps in this approach. But the question remains: why did they stop short of mentioning the root cause of this issue — the exploitation of wild animals via the global wildlife trade?

Afterall, the G20 Agriculture Ministers recently acknowledged this and will act on it. We also know that the UK, Australia, Germany and Mexico were supportive of a discussion on the wildlife trade, and there appeared to be enthusiasm from other nations too. India’s Prime Minister, Narenda Modi, spoke of the need to be ‘trustees rather than owners of nature and the environment’. Chinese President, Xi Jinping spoke of ‘building a clean and beautiful world where man and nature coexist in harmony’. The Leaders’ Declaration also stressed the importance of ‘safeguarding our planet and building a more environmentally sustainable and inclusive future for all people’.

Everything was there in principle to have a progressive and constructive discussion on global wildlife trade, that could lead to further action. Instead, it was a missed opportunity.

While the G20 Leaders’ Summit was disappointing for the wildlife trade ban, it’s not an issue that only has one shot, and it’s certainly not an issue that will go away. In fact, interest is growing, and over 1.1 million World Animal Protection supporters backed our calls to end the commercial wildlife trade. This set-back will only fan the flame. Measures outlined in the G20 Agriculture and Water Ministers communique are significant and cannot be discounted. It is our collective job to hold ministers accountable for their implementation, including the development of relevant guidelines.

There are also other major changes on the way that could offer a glimmer of hope. One of the world’s largest and powerful economies is also about to welcome in a new president — Joe Biden, who’s track record looks as though we could see a major political shift. While Donald Trump played down the pandemic, Biden is advocating urgent action. There’s no doubt he takes this risk more seriously, and he also has a more promising track record for animals. There are other summits and forums taking place this year that offer opportunities for advancement towards a global wildlife trade ban. For example, the UK, a country supportive of taking action, will lead the Group of Seven (G7) Summit this year. And the World Health Summit is being held in Germany in October 2021.

So, rather than dwell on what the G20 Summit in Riyadh could have been, let’s look ahead to next year’s G20 in Italy. The Italian Presidency, which will host to the next Summit, could be the event that we are all waiting for. A global commercial wildlife trade ban could be a reality in 2021. Let’s keep up the pressure and make sure it happens — for the sake of animals, and people.

World Animal Protection / Aaron Gekoski

Director of External Engagement at World Animal Protection. Activist. Yogi. Life Adventurer. Sustainability seeker.