China’s ban on eating wildlife is good – but its messaging between the lines is a cause for concern

Since the start of the year, as part of its emergency response to the coronavirus epidemic, China has been stepping up its efforts in law enforcement to disrupt the illegal wildlife trade and the criminal networks involved.

More than 300 markets and stores have had their operations halted, over 77,000 online posts advertising wildlife for sale have been removed, more than 16,000 captive breeding facilities have been placed under quarantine and at least six domestic or transnational networks have been busted.

Captive tiger in China, kept for commerce (c) EIAimage

In February, the National People’s Congress of China (the country’s highest law-making body) announced its decision to revise the Wildlife Protection Law in 2020. It also passed a decision to ban any consumption of terrestrial wildlife as food and to clamp down on related trade.

This decision was widely applauded by the public in China and abroad. It may also have encouraged neighbouring countries such as Vietnam to adopt similar measures.

In recent days, however, a different tone has emerged. On 18 March, an article by The Legal Daily, a State-run newspaper, was shared on the official website of the National People’s Congress. It reported comments from lawmakers and academics who appear to be arguing against stringent measures to restrict wildlife trade in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic (aka COVID-19).

These included calls for the list of species managed as ‘livestock’ (and therefore exempt from trade bans) to include species exploited by the fur and pet industries. The idea of redefining the term ‘wildlife’ to exclude captive-bred animals of non-domesticated species is of serious concern – the trade in endangered species such as tigers that have been bred commercially in captivity has done nothing to relieve pressure on wild populations and has perpetuated and stimulated demand.

The article also cited opinions that a total ban on the consumption of wildlife as a food source would lead to financial losses for breeders, as well as removing a “means by which to regulate the ecosystem”.

It is crucial that this year’s law revisions prohibit the breeding of wildlife for any purpose other than conservation of the species in the wild and do not relax existing controls over trade in captive-bred wildlife.

Bile bears caged in China (c) EIAimage

We have been here before – during the SARS epidemic in 2002-03, the Chinese Government imposed a ban on eating wildlife. Unfortunately, it was subsequently repealed once the epidemic was deemed under control and, with hindsight, was a missed opportunity to put in place permanent controls that may have prevented the situation in which we now find ourselves.

EIA is concerned that such commentary in State media may herald the beginning of a backlash against the current momentum for introducing more permanent and comprehensive restrictions on wildlife trade.

The Legal Daily is the public-facing media outlet of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission of the Communist Party of China, the most powerful Government department responsible for political and legal affairs. Any publication in this newspaper signals the direction the Government may be taking.

Fighting and preventing pandemics requires joint efforts between all governments and people. It is important to remember that many people in China do not consume nor support the consumption of wildlife. We therefore urge the Government of China to set aside the vested interests of a group and instead prioritise the lives and welfare of the whole population and to provide infrastructure and support for breeders and traders to promote change.

Dead pangolins seized by police in South China's Guangdong province, September 12, 2015 (Photo CFP)

Pangolins seized from illegal trade in China

The short-term costs for these individuals and the Government will be far outweighed by the long-term benefits to the national and global society.

The current pandemic puts China’s wildlife trade policies under intense international scrutiny and how China now chooses to act will have an enormous ripple effect on the policies of neighbouring countries.

It is crucial for China to stand firm on its decision to protect wildlife and public health by banning wildlife consumption for food and to extend this ban to cover use in traditional medicine and ornamental items.

The world is watching. We will be watching.