Indonesia’s wildlife markets are “like a cafeteria for animal pathogens,” but they have resisted efforts to close even as China has shut its own markets over coronavirus fears.
Six days a week, the butchers of Tomohon gather at Indonesia’s most notorious market and cut up bats, rats, snakes and lizards that were taken from the wilds of Sulawesi island.
Some of the butchers also slaughter dogs — many of them pets snatched from city streets — by clubbing them to death and burning off their fur with blowtorches.
For years, animal lovers and wildlife activists have urged officials to close the bazaar, boastfully known as the Tomohon Extreme Market. Now, the coronavirus pandemic is putting renewed pressure on the officials to finally take action.
“The market is like a cafeteria for animal pathogens,” said the lead expert for Indonesia’s coronavirus task force, Wiku Adisasmito, who has urged the government to close the country’s wildlife markets. “Consuming wild animals is the same as playing with fire.”
The earliest cluster of coronavirus cases in the global outbreak was linked to a market in Wuhan, China, where live animals were kept close together, creating an opportunity for the virus to jump to humans. The SARS virus, which killed 800 people worldwide, is believed to have originated in bats before spreading to civets in a wildlife market in China, and ultimately infecting people in 2002.
China ordered the closure of all its wildlife markets after the Wuhan outbreak in December. Now Indonesia’s Tomohon market is one of the region’s largest to sell wildlife for food.
Most of the wild animals at Tomohon are slaughtered before they reach the market. It is mainly dogs that are kept alive in cages and killed on the spot for customers who say that they taste better when freshly killed.
“It is like a time bomb,” said Billy Gustafianto Lolowang, manager of the Tasikoki Wildlife Rescue Center in the nearby town of Bitung. “We can only wait until we become the epicenter of a pandemic like Wuhan.”