It’s been a bad week for Yellow-breasted Bunting.
First, this beautiful songbird, once super-abundant across its range from northern Europe in the west to Japan in the east, has been classified as “Critically Endangered” on the 2017 IUCN Red List. This is the most endangered category and means that Yellow-breasted Bunting is just one step away from extinction.
And second, thanks to eagle-eyed Beijing birders, we’ve learned that, for around CNY 100-220 (GBP 12 to 25) per bird, it’s possible to buy live Yellow-breasted Buntings on Taobao, China’s version of eBay/Amazon (this link is still live at the time of publication).
The first piece of news is desperately sad, if not unexpected. The plight of the Yellow-breasted Bunting has been well-documented (for example, here and here) in conservation circles. In short, over the last two to three decades, the population has suffered a catastrophic decline of up to 95 per cent, with the main cause thought to be illegal trapping for food in China. Parallels have been drawn with the extinction of the once abundant Passenger Pigeon in North America, the last of which died in Cincinnati Zoo in 1914 after the wild population was driven to extinction by a combination of hunting and habitat loss.
Conservationists in Asia, led by Hong Kong Birdwatching Society and supported by BirdLife International, are doing their best to help this ailing species through a combination of scientific studies and awareness campaigns, including distribution of the poster below and the production of ‘Yellow-breasted Bunting-friendly’ rice in Hong Kong’s Long Valley, a wintering site for the species.
It’s the second piece of news that is shocking and disgusting.
Yellow-breasted Bunting is not easily bred in captivity and the birds for sale are almost certainly of wild origin. In China it is illegal to trap any wild bird without a license, only issued for scientific purposes. It is extremely unlikely the sellers have trapped these birds legally and, in the unlikely event they have a licence, the sellers are clearly abusing the terms under which that license was issued.
Taobao, often described as China’s Ebay or Amazon, is part of the Alibaba Group founded by Ma Yun (known as Jack Ma). He is one of China’s richest men, in fact one of the wealthiest people in Asia. According to Bloomberg, he has a net worth of USD 44.9 billion as of December 2017.
What makes the sale of almost extinct wildlife on his platform all the more galling is that Jack Ma has made many public statements and commitments about not selling wildlife products. In 2014, after bowing to public pressure, Alibaba made a commitment to “abide by national laws and regulations to remove all illegal wildlife information from our platform“. And The China Daily reported that Alibaba, together with other online sales platforms “..vowed to enable no advertising or trade in illegal wildlife and its products on their platforms and said they would voluntarily accept supervision from the society and government.”
On top of that Jack Ma has, not surprisingly given his wealth, been courted by the big conservation NGOs. In 2009 he became a trustee of The Nature Conservancy’s China program and, in April 2010, joined its global board of directors. In 2013, he became chairman of the board for The Nature Conservancy’s China Program. It surely undermines TNC’s reputation and credibility on wildlife conservation if members of their board facilitate the sale of critically endangered wildlife.
I am of the belief that, when discovering issues such as this, it is better to engage privately at first, highlighting the problem and allowing the company, which may not be aware of the illegal nature of the sales, to have a chance to fix it before going public. Of course it must be extremely difficult to monitor everything for sale on a large online platform such as Taobao. To do so needs capacity and specialist knowledge; these things take time to develop and, given the rapid growth of the business, it’s not surprising that oversight capacity has been slow to keep up.
However, it is now several years since Alibaba first courted controversy for selling illegal wildlife products and sadly it appears that “voluntarily accepting supervision from society and government”, as committed by Alibaba in 2014, are hollow words.
Back in December 2015 Birding Beijing alerted Alibaba to several sellers offering migrant birds for sale including Mongolian and Black Larks. After an acknowledgement of our correspondence, we subsequently received a reply to say that, as we could not prove these birds were captured in the wild, it was not illegal to sell them. So, according to Alibaba, there was no onus on them to ensure the products sold on their platform are legal. A disappointing response.
On hearing about sellers offering Yellow-breasted Buntings for sale, we once again contacted Alibaba to inform them of this illegal activity on their site. This time we received no reply at all after 10 days.
It is therefore with reluctance that I am writing this article to publicise the fact that Alibaba is selling almost extinct wildlife on its platform and doesn’t appear to care.
What is even more shocking about this latest episode is that it flies in the face of President Xi Jinping’s vision of a “Beautiful China”. The speech President Xi delivered to the 19th Communist Party Congress in October 2017 is widely seen as the guiding light for government and society in China and is quoted in almost all meetings with government officials. Some relevant extracts from the speech are below:
“We must pursue a model of sustainable development featuring increased
production, higher living standards, and healthy ecosystems. We must continue
the Beautiful China initiative to create good working and living environments for
our people and play our part in ensuring global ecological security.”
“We will establish an environmental governance system in which government takes the lead, enterprises assume main responsibility, and social organizations and the public also participate.”
“We will take tough steps to stop and punish all activities that damage the environment.”
Alibaba’s facilitation of the illegal wildlife trade is clearly inconsistent with all three of these statements.
The amount of money Taobao makes from selling items such as this must be tiny in the context of their overall business. Wouldn’t it make sense, for the sake of their reputation, to ban the sales of any wildlife, whether it’s clearly illegal or if there is any doubt? The cost would be negligible and the benefits to their image considerable.
Only then will they be able to claim that they care about wildlife and only then will their business be consistent with Xi Jinping’s vision for a modern “Beautiful China”. If Alibaba’s leader is going to make big commitments, it is wise to ensure he or she can live up to them. I hope someone from Alibaba can comment.
The Yellow-breasted Bunting is one of the most beautiful songbirds in China; it’s a feature of spring and autumn in Beijing and as recently as September, I was fortunate to see one on the patch of scrub close to my apartment in Shunyi. It’s decline towards extinction may yet be irreversible. However, with the efforts of conservationists in China and other parts of east Asia, supported by people from all over the world, it has a chance. It would be tragic if these efforts are undermined by the selfish and irresponsible attitude of Alibaba.
UPDATE: on the morning of 8 December we received a call from a representative of Alibaba. The representative said Taobao was ‘horrified’ to see the social media posts about Yellow-breasted Buntings for sale and, in response to the article, removed the seller’s page and other similar posts. The representative also said the company was reviewing its procedures to try to improve their success rate at spotting sellers offering wild birds. They would be happy to receive links of any posts of concern and would deal with them appropriately. Additionally, they committed to passing on the details of sellers of wild birds to the police. Comment: This is a positive response but, of course, the proof is in the pudding. We have a long list of links showing wild birds for sale and we’ll be regularly monitoring Taobao to ensure there is an improvement.
Title image: screenshot of the page on Taobao selling Yellow-breasted Buntings (taken 7 December 2017).