China’s coronavirus battle may be ending but its war on eating wild animals has just begun
Wang Xiangwei
7th March 2020
  • China’s latest ban on the trade and consumption of wild animals will wipe out wet markets, but they are just the tip of the iceberg
  • To avoid simply driving the problem underground, a whole-of-society approach will be needed – and for years to come

After more than a month of draconian efforts to curb transmission, China’s “people’s war” against the deadly novel coronavirus epidemic has started to pay off, raising optimism that the final victory is within sight over the next month or so.

But the parallel battle against the most likely source of the outbreak – the trade and consumption of wild animals – will take much longer, probably years, if not decades.

Beijing’s announcement last month of a comprehensive and permanent ban has won praise from the international community for boosting the global fight against the illegal trade because China is a major destination for trafficked animals.

Banning is easy and makes great headlines but eradicating the notorious and superstitious habits of eating exotic animals for health or status and the practice of harvesting animal parts for medicinal use, deeply ingrained in Chinese culture and history for thousands of years, will be a lot harder.

Moreover, after years of lax regulation and corruption, the trade and consumption of wild animals, including those born and raised in dubious breeding farms, has spawned an immensely profitable and well-organised industry, yielding 125 billion yuan (US$18 billion) in output and employing more than 6 million people in 2016, the latest year for which the data was compiled, according to Chinese media. But these figures merely cover the supply chain, which was legal until the latest permanent ban last month, and do not include the vast size of the black market.

China’s record of regulating and controlling the wildlife trade and consumption is nowhere near adequate.

Trafficked wildlife in Guangde city in central China’s Anhui Province. Photo: AP

Following the Sars outbreak, which killed nearly 800 people and infected more than 8,000 others worldwide in 2002/2003, China imposed a similar ban, for six months only, because the virus was thought to have come from civet cats, a popular delicacy in Guangdong.

The latest coronavirus, which has already killed more than 3,000 people and infected more than 80,000 others in China, is from the family of viruses that gave rise to Sars and is believed to have passed to humans from bats and pangolins.

As the latest outbreak has inflicted much greater political and economic damage on the country, China’s leadership has taken a tougher approach this time round.

In a speech last month, Chinese President Xi Jinping admitted that even though the authorities had known for some time there were major risks involved in consuming wild animals, the game meat industry was still substantial.

He urged the government to waste no time in strengthening laws and regulations to root out the illegal trade in, and consumption of, wild animals.

As a result, China hastily announced a blanket ban on the trade and consumption of all terrestrial wildlife animals except for medicinal use and scientific research, instead of going through the necessary process of amending the existing law, which protects only the endangered species recognised nationally and internationally.

China’s legislative session has been postponed because of the coronavirus outbreak and officials have said amending the wildlife laws would be top of the agenda this year.

Six red pandas in Laos, which were seized from wildlife traffickers on their way to China. Photo: AFP

Over the past few weeks, hardly a day has gone by without a government agency announcing measures to crack down on poaching and illegal trading and consumption of wild animals, or local courts meting out lengthy jail terms to poachers or illegal traders. National television has repeatedly broadcast infomercials urging viewers to respect nature and stop eating game meat.

The latest data from the Ministry of Public Security provides a glimpse into the scale of the market for wildlife animals.

In less than a month in a nationwide campaign ending March 2, the police confiscated 92,000 wild animals and 5,300kg of finished products made from them, including endangered macaques, exotic birds, peacocks, wild boars and civet cats.

There is little doubt that the government will continue its crackdown and massive publicity campaign in the months to come. This will dampen the demand but also risk driving the practices further underground.

For Chinese people preoccupied with food, feasting on Shanzhen Haiwei (literally “treasures from the mountains and flavours of the seas”) is the ultimate folklore symbol of wealth and health. Typical “treasures from the mountains”, such as monkey brains and bear’s paws, are status symbols for the rich and elite.

Ordinary people who cannot afford these rare delicacies turn to less expensive animals like cats, dogs, and even rats in the misguided belief that gorging on them can strengthen the body and cure illnesses.

China’s consistent efforts to push traditional medicine complicate things as some officially sanctioned remedies use animal parts from threatened species, including pangolin scales, rhino horns and tiger parts. This has triggered a surge in trafficking of wildlife from neighbouring countries, including Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, where the eating of wildlife is also popular.

Dogs at a market in Yulin, south China’s Guangxi region. Photo: AFP

The latest ban does not cover medicinal use, which raises concerns that traffickers will take advantage of the exemption to continue their illicit business.

Over the past decade, the Chinese government has encouraged the farming of animals to be used in traditional medicine and fur production and for licensed consumption.

Xinhua reported last week that some of those farms were known to have laundered poached animals and sold them on as legitimate products for hefty profits.But shutting those farms down and cutting off the supply chain presents another headache for the government, given its large workforce and at a time when avoiding massive lay-offs in the slowing economy, exacerbated by the coronavirus outbreak, has become a top government concern.

In particular, many of those farms are located in poor rural regions where the local authorities have seen the trade as a way to lift people out of poverty. The Chinese authorities have set a firm deadline for lifting all people above the official poverty line by the end of this year.

Meanwhile, China’s latest ban will no doubt wipe out all the wet markets that sell wild animals, just like the one in Wuhan where the latest coronavirus outbreak is thought to have emerged in December.

But Chinese media reports have suggested the trade at wet markets is just the tip of the iceberg. The traffickers have become increasingly sophisticated and organised, turning to social media tools like WeChat to trade and solicit customers.

To win the battle, a whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach is needed and should be sustained for years to come. 

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