Much has been written in recent days and weeks about China’s “ban on the illegal wildlife trade” in response to the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan, Hubei Province. Due to cultural and language barriers, some of the English language articles in the media have not been fully accurate. The article below, written by Li Yuhan, helps to navigate this complex issue.
Li Yuhan is one of China’s brightest young conservationists, formerly of ShanShui Conservation Center at Peking University and now studying conservation management at Oxford University. I was fortunate to work alongside Yuhan in Qinghai Province, where she headed ShanShui’s workstation in Sanjiagyuan (aka The Valley of the Cats). Drawing on contacts with Chinese academics and conservationists as well as colleagues at the Oxford Martin Programme on the Illegal Wildlife Trade, the article below explains what has happened and what it means. With her permission, I am delighted to be able to post Yuhan’s article here in full. The original is on the website of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science at Oxford University website – see here.
The outbreak of COVID-19 has caused more than 2700 deaths in China and has spread to 50 countries [1,2]. The evidence currently suggests the virus was first transmitted to humans at a seafood market in Wuhan, Hubei province, as many early confirmed cases involved individuals that had contact with this market, and 93.9%(31/33) of environmental samples taken from the western region of the market were found to have COVID-19 . In addition to seafood, fresh meat and live wild animals were being sold and slaughtered in this market, and coronaviruses are known to jump from some species (e.g., bat, camel, civet) to people . These indicate that the virus might have stemmed from wild animals on sale at the market . However, we should be cautious as the intermediate host of COVID-19 remains unconfirmed at this stage. Following the outbreak, the market was shut down by the government on January 1st, 2020. The consumption of wildlife in China has drawn unprecedented public attention ever since, both within China and internationally, given the severe public health implications of the outbreak.
On February 24th 2020, China’s top legislature adopted a decision to “thoroughly ban the illegal trading of wildlife and eliminate the consumption of wild animals to safeguard people’s lives and health.” The decision has binding force and it took effect on the same day as its promulgation, i.e., February 24th [5,6].
This article provides a detailed explanation of this decision and is based on discussions within the Oxford Martin Programme on the Illegal Wildlife Trade at the University of Oxford and consultations with Shanshui Conservation Center, based at Peking University in China.
Consumption of terrestrial wild animals for edible uses prohibited
As COVID-19 is assumed to have close links with the consumption of wild animals, the new decision prohibits the eating of terrestrial wild animals, including those that are bred or reared in captivity. Hunting, trading and transporting terrestrial wild animals for the purposes of food consumption is also prohibited .
This is a big move. Previously in China, only those 402 species on the List of Wild Animals Under State Priority Conservation were banned from consumption as wild meat . However, this list is outdated and does not correspond to the conservation status of some species . Consumption of other wild terrestrial animals was permitted, subject to obtaining appropriate certificates (e.g., hunting, breeding, quarantine, trade) from the government. However, this certification system was sometimes poorly implemented. Buying a certificate and using it for “laundering” of wild-caught animals was possible .
Which species which are currently consumed are not included in these new measures?
Although this new ban was quickly celebrated by the media and some in the international conservation community, there are several nuances and exceptions that must be clarified.
Aquatic wildlife is exempt, because the National People’s Congress (NPC) views “fishing as a natural resource and an important agricultural product, as well as a common international practise” . This means, for example, that sea horses, turtles, sea cucumbers and other widely consumed species will continue to be traded under the same rules as before.
It is unclear whether the ban includes amphibians and reptiles, for example snakes. Wild plants are not included in the ban. Only farmed, terrestrial animals on the List of Genetic Resource of Livestock and Poultry can now be traded for food consumption. A publicly available version of this list can be found in a report to UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, and includes various breeds of pig, chicken, duck, goose, special poultry (e.g., ostrich), cattle, sheep, goat, horse, donkey, rabbit and deer . Mink and raccoon dog are also on the list, possibly due to demand for their pelts. Previously, some species not in the list could be farmed (e.g., civets and bamboo rats) but farming these species is now illegal, if they are to be consumed as food. The Chinese government plans to revise this list and it is very important to discuss what will be added.
What about non-edible uses?
Non-edible use of wild terrestrial animals, such as scientific research, medicinal use, and display, are still regulated by existing laws, such as the Wildlife Protection Law (2018) and the Traditional Chinese Medicine Law (2016) . For example, it remains legal to use processed pangolin scales from a certificated source, or bear bile from legal farms for medical purposes, or stockpiled saiga horn. This means that a substantial number of species of conservation concern are unaffected by the ban.
What about the illegal trade?
Some wildlife trade is already illegal (e.g., tiger, ivory) in China, and the Chinese government has announced it will clamp down further on such trade with “aggravated punishment”, suggesting stronger penalties will be used for illegal wildlife trade. In the existing Criminal Law and its interpretation (2014), if the circumstances are especially serious, life imprisonment or death shall be sentenced .
Further details are not currently available but should become clear in forthcoming legislation. Since the rise of COVID-19, the Chinese government has investigated over 600 cases of wildlife crime , and hopefully, this greater focus on law enforcement will become the norm.
What about the Chinese public’s views?
Since the outbreak of the virus, several Chinese conservation organisations have organised a questionnaire to understand public attitudes and circulated it on Chinese social media (e.g., wechat, weibo), receiving over 100,000 responses. Among the respondents, 88% of whom resided in urban areas, 32% have seen people eating wild animals in the past year, while 96.4% said they supported a ban on consumption of all wild animals. Those against the ban believed that “the industry of some wildlife farming is very mature”, and that “some wildlife farming can bring income.” In terms of banning all trade in wild animals, including food consumption, medicinal use and others, more than 90% of the respondents expressed a willingness to support this . Whether this is a short-term attitude because of the current situation, and whether it is shared by more rural, less internet-savvy people, remains to be seen.
Winners and losers
Certain species will definitely gain from this decision, assuming that it is well enforced. These are terrestrial wild mammal species which are legal to hunt and consume, and which are currently potentially under threat as a result of this consumption. Species which fall into this category include civets and bats (both of which, by the way, have been implicated in previous epidemics). Others (particularly aquatic species and those used legally in Traditional Chinese Medicine) will not benefit from this legislation. The crack-down on breaches of existing laws may help species traded illegally. However, the markets have not been permanently closed as yet, and so the public health, animal welfare and conservation concerns which they produce remain.
People in the farmed wild animal industry could face severe economic losses as a result of this new legislation. Previously, the farming of certain wildlife species was encouraged by the government to help alleviate poverty . The wildlife farming industry is estimated to have created employment for more than 14 million people and worth over £56 billion, with pelt production (e.g., mink, raccoon dog, fox) representing 74.8% and food consumption involving species such as the giant salamander, frog and blue peacock, 24% . The National People’s Congress spokesman stated that local governments should guide these farmers towards other industries and provide compensation for their losses . Meanwhile, what happens to the captive-bred animals remains uncertain, with potential implications for animal welfare.
This decision may be just the start of a series of new pieces of legislation, which authorise provincial and city-level governments to implement their own measures. For example, one day after the national announcement, the Shenzhen government released a draft proposal for regional management, suggesting that the ban on animal consumption might extend to pet animals, such as cats and dogs . The National People’s Congress also plans to revise the Wildlife Protection Law (2018) and other wildlife-related laws this year. These forthcoming legislative changes will need continued attention and efforts by Chinese NGOs and the public to make sure that the changes are as effective as possible.
It has taken so much human suffering to bring attention to this issue. However, the speed with which this new decision has been taken offers hope that the lessons of COVID-19 will be learned.
Special thanks to Melissa Arias, Dan Challender, E.J. Milner-Gulland, Xuesong Han, Amy Hinsley, Xilin Jiang, Xiao Mao, Terry Townshend, Lingyun Xiao, for their valuable comments and edits to this blog.
Header photo: Menu of a wild meat restaurant in Wuhan Huanan seafood market, where civet, bamboo rat and other animals were sold. Photo credit: weibo
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