As COVID-19 begins to take hold in many countries around the world, it is perhaps of no consolation to most people that the situation in Beijing appears to be stabilising. Life in the capital is slowly taking small steps towards normality, treading the fine line between continuing to contain the spread of this seemingly incredibly infectious virus and minimising the disruption to the economy and people’s lives. More shops and restaurants are open, albeit with restrictions on numbers and temperature checks on entry, and office workers are being allowed to return, with limits on the maximum number of people in an office at any one time and regular checks by the government.
However, as a reminder that things remain far from normal, housing compounds still forbid entry to non-residents and residents are checked for symptoms each time they enter, with everyone required to wear a mask when in public places. Admirably, the local staff in my compound have been religiously disinfecting the lifts, door handles and any other potential sources of transmission at least twice per day. And, given many people rely on deliveries for groceries and other essentials, these are now contactless – the couriers leave packages at the security gate for residents to collect, avoiding any direct contact.
The lockdown must be a gold mine of information for social scientists. The psychological effects of severe restrictions on human interaction beyond immediate family must be significant and there are already articles doing the rounds about an increase in the divorce rate, and also pregnancies, during these strange times.
For me, as someone who has always found solace and inspiration in nature, and particularly with birds, this time has been a reminder of their positive power. I’ve taken the opportunity to read more, something I have certainly neglected in recent years, and one book, in particular, made me realise what I have been missing… I lost myself for hours in “The Seabird’s Cry” by Adam Nicholson, a captivating book celebrating the incredible lives of seabirds, following ten species around the coasts and islands of Scotland, Ireland, the Americas and across the vast ocean in between. For a taste, here is Adam’s description of the Kittiwake:
“a sprung and beautiful thing, dawn grey, black eyes, black tips to the wings . . . its whole being like a singer’s held note, not flickering or rag-like, nor blown about like a tern, but elastic, vibrant, investigative, delicate . . . ”
Invigorated by nature writing, the self-quarantine has also allowed me time to research historical records of birds in Beijing, going through books and journals from the likes of Cai Qikan, Robert Swinhoe, J D D La Touche, Père Armand David and other early ornithologists in China. The result will be a new online resource, coming soon, which will provide the status of every species recorded in Beijing. Watch this space!
And in the last few days, as the situation stabilises, birders have been venturing out, in many ways the perfect activity in these times – small numbers of people in large, open spaces, always following the local regulations to wear a mask. And some of the young local birders have been handsomely rewarded with some special sightings. On Thursday, Wang Xue visited Ming Tombs Reservoir and found Beijing’s first ever AMERICAN WIGEON (绿眉鸭, Lǜ méi yā). The stunning drake lingered for the rest of the day, loosely associating with some MALLARD (绿头鸭 Lǜ tóu yā), a COMMON POCHARD (红头潜鸭 Hóng tóu qián yā) and a drake BAIKAL TEAL (花脸鸭 Huā liǎn yā).
A summer-plumaged PALLAS’S GULL (渔鸥, Yú ōu) at the same site would normally be the star of the show but that day it was relegated to the role of supporting actor.
After putting out the news of her find on WeChat, Wang Xue stayed around to help the 60 or so birders who made the short journey to experience this rare visitor. I am grateful to Steve and Zhou Xi Bale who collected me on the way, allowing me to share the moment. The sense of elation, and even release, among the group was palpable… a rare moment of joy and celebration in what has been a tough beginning to the year.
On the same day, two male BAER’S POCHARD (青头潜鸭 Qīng tóu qián yā) were found at DaShiHe in Fangshan District (Xi’ao’pai Yuren), associating with some COOT (骨顶鸡 Gǔ dǐng jī), a few GREAT CRESTED GREBE (凤头鸊鷉 Fèng tóu pì tī) and a single FERRUGINOUS DUCK (白眼潜鸭 Bái yǎn qián yā). Fortunately, they stayed around and were still present at the weekend, allowing many people to catch up with this critically endangered duck.
Of course, it’s not only rare birds that provide joy. The flocks of DAURIAN JACKDAW (达乌里寒鸦 Dá wū lǐ hán yā) migrating north, the REED PARROTBILL (震旦鸦雀 Zhèn dàn yā què) calling incessantly from a reedbed and the sight of GREAT CRESTED GREBE (凤头鸊鷉 Fèng tóu pì tī) beginning their courtship displays, were all wonderful to behold.
The positive feelings were reinforced when we met with two groups of local forestry police, both of whom asked us if we had seen anyone setting up nets. They were actively patrolling and clearly getting ready to crack down on poaching in the forthcoming migration season. A few years ago, an encounter like that would have been just a dream!
The experience of the last few days has been uplifting and has reminded me just how positive birds can be to our every day lives, including our mental health. I am optimistic that the joy provided by these rare visitors and the inspiration they have provided to get out into nature, represent the beginning of a change in fortune for Beijing and its inhabitants. Spring, with all its optimism and anticipation, is here at last.
Title image: the drake AMERICAN WIGEON at Ming Tombs Reservoir (photo by Wang Xue)
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
 中华人民共和国农业部 Ministry of Agriculture P R of C. 中国畜禽遗传资源状况Genetic Resource of Livestock and Poultry of China. 2003.
 最高人民法院最高人民检察院关于办理走私刑事案件适用法律若干问题的解释 Interpretations of the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate on several issues concerning the application of law in handling criminal cases of smuggling. 2014/2020-02-28. http://www.court.gov.cn/shenpan-xiangqing-7081.html
 野生动物修法调查 | 22天，10万份问卷，聊聊这些民间的声音 Survey on the revision of laws on wildlife: 22 days, 100,000 responses, voices from the public. Shanshui Conservation Center. 2020/2020-02-28. http://www.shanshui.org/information/1926/