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Jan. 25, 2020, 3:48 p.m. EST

Inside the horrific, inhumane animal markets behind pandemics like coronavirus

Unregulated and usually filthy markets are found all over Asia and Africa

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By Paula Froelich


AFP/Getty Images
Pigs resting in a pen at a pig farm in Yiyang county, in China's central Henan province.

You can usually smell the markets before you see them.

Especially if you’re downwind.

It’s a sickly, almost sweet and nauseating smell of death. Once inside, the fetid stench — made worse by blistering temperatures and zero refrigeration — is overwhelming, and it is places like this where the deadly coronavirus originated.

In stall after stall, a mix of live and dead animals, which run the gamut from the known (pig, ox, duck, chicken) to the rare or unknown due to the condition of the carcass — stare back at you. In the wet areas of the market — usually reserved for fish and sea creatures and where the ground is slick with water and often blood — the stink is worse. The animals that have not yet been dispatched by the butcher’s knife make desperate bids to escape by climbing on top of each other and flopping or jumping out of their containers (to no avail). At least in the wet areas, the animals don’t make a sound. The screams from mammals and fowl are unbearable and heartbreaking.

These unregulated and usually filthy markets are found all over Asia and Africa.

In Laos, I came across a section of the local (i.e. not for tourist) market full of dead bats as well as live creatures like birds, turtles, fish and other unfortunate critters.

In North Vietnam, on market days, hundreds of (live and dead) dogs were being sold for supper alongside other land and sea creatures.

In Myanmar and Cambodia, fish and animals I never even knew existed were being bartered for alive and dead. In a way, it was fascinating — there were reptiles, insects and fish I’d never seen before. Some looked so odd it was hard to believe they weren’t alien — and in colors that were stunning and strange.

In South Africa, Congo and Mali there were monkeys and chimpanzee parts being sold for medicine as well as meat.

I once came across a live hedgehog in Bamako, Mali, and bought it just to give it its freedom and have it live another day. A pangolin baby at the Sangha Pangolin Project I wrote about last week was saved in a similar manner.

The pangolin, an elusive mammal that looks like a cross between an anteater, an armadillo and a pinecone, is the most trafficked animal in the world, with over 100,000 killed last year. They are hunted for their scales which the Chinese believe helps with blood circulation.

Presumably, none of these animals or their carcasses from these markets are screened for rabies, anthrax, salmonella or other animal-borne diseases.

And China is also full of similar markets — where live animals wait for their fresh slaughter. The market at the center of the deadly coronavirus outbreak sold live animals — including wolf pups, foxes, rats and peacocks, as well as crocodiles, giant salamanders, snakes, porcupines, and camel meat.

The coronavirus is a series of viruses that include a range from the common cold to pneumonia that causes respiratory infections, which are often mild, but in rare cases are potentially lethal. Symptoms of the virus include fever, coughing and difficulty breathing.

It is in these markets where the deadliest outbreaks can start.

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