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Ending the Appetite for Wildlife

Under public pressure to ban the consumption of wildlife since the outbreak of Covid-19, China is fast-tracking a revision of its Wildlife Protection Law, despite pushback from some in the trade

By NewsChina Updated May.1

A month before the outbreak of Covid-19 in Wuhan, Hubei Province, Lao Wei, who lives in the remote Yunkai Mountains in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, had a big stock of wild animals he had hunted. Lao said he had trapped vultures, owls, white-bellied rats, a crested serpent eagle, Chinese crocodile lizards and a caged leopard cat who, in his words, “always tried to escape.” 

In an article published on the WeChat account of NPO Weekly, an online media portal focusing on public welfare issues, on March 3, he said he used to hunt in the forests almost every day. The wildlife was so abundant, he could easily catch two squirrels a day. “I’d have two hounds chasing them, and the squirrels were forced to run and jump until they’d find a burrow to hide in,” the hunter said. “Then you use smoke or other ways to force the squirrel out of the burrow and trap it in a bamboo tube or a bag.” 

The changing landscape, including deforestation of the indigenous pine trees which were replaced with plantations of eucalyptus trees for sale, mean it is no longer easy to find squirrels.  

Even if he had them, he would not be able to sell them. After the outbreak of the deadly coronavirus in Wuhan, his regular customers did not show up. Lao Wei said he knew his business could not continue as it had, especially after the Chinese government released new rules on controlling the trade, legal and illegal, in wildlife.
Quick Crackdown
As scientists say the most likely origin of Covid-19, the name of the disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus was from the consumption of wild animals, on February 24, the National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee, the country’s top legislature, decided to “thoroughly ban the illegal wildlife trade and eliminate the consumption of wild animals to safeguard people’s lives and health.” The rule went into effect immediately. The new law so far only applies to terrestrial animals. Aquatic wildlife is exempt, because the NPC views “fishing as a natural resource and an important agricultural product, as well as a common international practice.” 

Also the new decision still allows non-edible use of wild terrestrial animals, such as scientific research, medicinal use and display under the existing regulations and laws including the Wildlife Protection Law (2018) and the Traditional Chinese Medicine Law (2016). 

In an interview with the State-run People’s Daily, Yang Qinghe, deputy director of the economic law department of the Legislative Affairs Committee of the NPC Standing Committee, said the law prohibits eating all terrestrial wild animals including those that are bred or reared in captivity. Previously, this only applied to those in the protected category of precious, endangered land-based wildlife species of “beneficial or important economic, social and scientific research value.” The decision also completely prohibits hunting, trading and transporting terrestrial wild animals for any purposes of food consumption. The law stipulates that there will be “aggravated punishment” for those caught participating in the wildlife trade, suggesting stronger penalties. These are likely to include lengthy prison sentences or even capital punishment under serious circumstances. 

“This is definitely an urgent decision,” said Lu Zhi, a professor of conservation biology at Peking University, in an interview with China Philanthropist magazine in late February. The public hailed the decision as a big move toward a complete ban on eating wild animals, since previously, according to a rerecent report by the Beijing-based NGO Shan Shui Conservation Center, only 402 species on the List of Wild Animals under State Priority Conservation were banned from being eaten. Consumption of other wild terrestrial animals not on the list was permitted if licenses for hunting, breeding, quarantine and trade were granted. However, the license regulation system was easily manipulated. It was common practice to buy certificates and use it to then launder illegally caught wildlife for that raised legally.  

The decision instigated new policies and measures from authorities at different levels. On February 26, China’s National Forestry and Grassland Administration reiterated that all wildlife transportation and sales for consumption were prohibited. It would strengthen approvals and supervise the utilization of wildlife not for eating purposes. Shenzhen took the lead when it released a draft proposal for public feedback which would ban all wildlife consumption except nine domesticated species. The list of exemptions did not include cats and dogs, indicating that it would be the first region in China to ban the consumption of cat and dog meat.  

The Xinhua News Agency reported that the southern provinces of Guangxi, Hainan and Guangdong, areas known for wildlife consumption, have ramped up measures to crack down on wildlife crimes.  

Other regions have announced arrests and seizures. In Jiangxi Province, 39 people suspected of committing wildlife crimes were arrested. The charges involved the trading of 819 wild animals and 100.6 kilograms of illegal products.  

Before the NPC decision, animal rights activists had already begun to push for new legislation. On January 22, 19 academicians and scholars signed a joint letter calling on the NPC to make quick amendments to the Wildlife Protection Law which would add public health considerations regarding wild animal utilization. On January 28, four institutions and organizations including China Environment News, the Institute of Environmental and Resources Law at the China University of Political Science and Law, the Research Center of Ecological Law at Beijing Forestry University and the environmental NGO Friends of Nature called for legislation to forbid eating wildlife.  

According to spokesperson Zang Tiewei from the Legislative Affairs Committee of the NPC Standing Committee, it had already started planning to overhaul the Wildlife Protection Law and other wildlife laws this year. More details will be clear in forthcoming legislative changes.  

A captive bear at the Fujian Guizhentang Pharmaceutical bear breeding base bites a bar of its cage, February 24, 2020. The bear’s bile will be harvested for traditional Chinese medicine

Dead birds hang from nets set up by local farmers to protect crops, Taiyuan, Shanxi Province,February 14

Revamping the Law
The present Wildlife Protection Law was amended in recent years and took effect in 2018. Ecologist Xie Yan, an associate researcher at the Institute of Zoology under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told NewsChina in an earlier interview that although the latest version of the law saw apparent progress in limiting the role of wildlife exploitation, it still allowed wide scope for captive breeding programs of wild animals for commercial purposes, as well as the capture of wild animals for these programs. NewsChina learned from official sources that what had prevented a complete overhaul of the law was the sheer scale of the wildlife consumption industry in the Chinese mainland. Official statistics indicated that by 2004, a year after the SARS epidemic, there were 16,000 breeding operations, with an annual output of some 20 billion yuan (US$2.88b). According to the Research Report for China Wild Animal Breeding Industry Sustainable Development Strategy, 14 million people were involved in the wild animal breeding industry in 2016, which was worth more than 520 billion yuan (US$75b). The report said that the “wild animal breeding industry has become one of the most vital and promising industries for China’s national economy.” 

Conservationists said that the ambiguities in the revision of the Wildlife Protection Law posed threats to wildlife, in particular the ineffective supervision of the captive breeding industry. In an interview with NewsChina in mid-February, Zhou Haixiang, a member of China’s State Committee of the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Program, said the law only protects endangered species at the pinnacle of the ecological pyramid, while ignoring all other species.

 “The prerequisite to sustain the balance of the whole ecosystem and the survival of species on the pinnacle depends on a sufficient number of species on the body and at the bottom of the pyramid,” Zhou said.  

“The plan to revise the law was urgently introduced into the NPC’s legislation plan for this year, so its timeline is still unclear,” Liu Jinmei, legal advisor for Friends of Nature, told NewsChina. Many experts, including Liu, believe that piecemeal patching-up of the law will not be effective-only a complete rewriting of the law will do.  

The School of Law-based Government (SLBG) under the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing offered public suggestions to transfer wildlife preservation supervision from the National Forestry and Grassland Administration to the Natural Resource Ministry, which would give it greater enforcement powers and a higher status. SLBG also suggested redefining the scope of wildlife and expanding the application of the wildlife law.  

“It is necessary and also practical for our country to completely ban the consumption of wildlife,” said Sun Jiang, a professor at the Xi’an-based Northwest University of Political Science and Law. Sun said in an interview with the Legal Daily in early March that considering the sufficient output of animal husbandry, aquaculture and fishing industries in China, Chinese people have enough protein compared with the global average, so there is no need for Chinese people to consume wildlife meat which poses a high risk to human health.  

An article published by Lu Zhi’s team at Peking University pointed out that the new wildlife law should focus primarily on protection and public safety. It should update the list of wildlife species for future protection, and more importantly establish a white list for animals that can be bred and eaten. 

A customs agent holds a seized baby pangolin during a clampdown on smuggling endangered animals and animal products in Nanning, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, March 29, 2019

White List
Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, some leading conservation organizations in China distributed a questionnaire on Chinese social media, receiving over 100,000 responses. More than 90 percent of respondents said they supported a ban on all trade in wild animals, including food consumption, medicinal use and other uses, which would include things like fashion. 

The draft regulation Shenzhen released indicated that only nine domesticated terrestrial animals -pigs, cattle, sheep, donkeys, rabbits, chickens, ducks, geese and pigeons as well as aquatic animals -are categorized on a “white list” allowing for the consumption of meat.  

According to an anonymous official from the Legislative Affairs Committee under the Shenzhen People’s Congress, this “white list” was decided in the draft plan according to preliminary research which indicated that these species are the main products in Shenzhen’s food markets which can meet most residents’ dietary habits. As the drafters are still soliciting public comments, the white list is not yet finalized.  

“In reality, it’s hard to ban wild animal consumption, since it’s difficult to define which species are categorized as wild animals and which are not. So it’s really necessary to have a list,” Sun told the Legal Daily. Guo Peng from the Animal Protection Research Center at Shandong University recommended that the list of animals for consumption should be adapted according to their changing population in the wild. 

Lu Zhi from Peking University also said a list is needed. For those who consume and use wildlife, the new rules will require a complete attitude reversal. A white list of species is a different path from the present law. “This is driven out of consideration for public health, since the pathogens don’t care if an animal is protected or not when they are picking a host,” she said. 

Legal expert Liu Jinmei from Friends of Nature told NewsChina in early March that both it and the Shan Shui Conservation Center had recommended the setting up of an independent and open scientific committee to monitor the setting of quotas, listing, updating and readjusting, to ensure the rules were scientific and neutral.  

“The rules for fixing a white list, we believe should be based on scientific evidence and thorough scientific evaluation and recognition,” Liu told NewsChina. “It should ensure transparency and openness for public monitoring while allowing timely updating and adjustment.”  

According to the article by Lu’s team, there should be prerequisites for categorizing species on the white list. Species should have stable wild populations and breeding should involve advanced techniques to ensure sustainable captive breeding without any need for resupply with wild species. There must be quarantine standards and an established low level of risk to public health and a breeding record and individual data of its pedigree to allow tracking of its origin, as well as open information from breeding to utilization to allow supervision from authorities and the public. The article also suggested a white list of certified companies with a good record in the captive breeding industry should be established.  

Despite overwhelming public support for a complete ban on eating wildlife, particularly under the current conditions, there has been pushback from those involved in the trade. Liu Jinlong, a researcher with National Academy of Development and Strategy at the Renmin University of China, cautioned in early March that “we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater,” indicating the high profits and employment of the industry contributed to the country’s economy.  

On February 16, the Frog Breeding Special Committee affiliated to the China Wildlife Conservation Association (CWCA) published an article which described wild animal breeding and farming as the “great initiative of our human ancestors.” 

The article stated that deciding to completely ban wild animal consumption is arbitrary, since people had always eaten wild animal products.  

The article immediately aroused heated debate online, and it was slammed by animal rights activists. Under online query and pressure, the CWCA was forced to apologize and expressed its plan to disband the Frog Breeding Special Committee.  

According to Lu, the development of the wild animal breeding industry involves a complicated network of interest groups and patronage. “For breeding farmers, especially those in poor, remote rural areas, the decision might severely damage their rights, so there should be a compensation system to help those farmers switch to other ways of making a living,” she said.