Lawmakers in Beijing are currently revising the Wildlife Protection Law of the People’s Republic of China, the country’s most important piece of legislation covering wildlife conservation and trade.
In its current form, the law allows for commercial trade in parts and products of big cats, pangolins, elephants, bears and other threatened wild animal species – and early indications in China’s media suggest that situation is unlikely to change.
This is a serious concern given the urgent need for Chinese authorities to commit to reducing demand for these species, which are subject to high levels of poaching and trafficking and for which China is a primary destination in illegal trade.
A revision of the law was announced in February, primarily triggered by concerns over the public health risks posed by wildlife trade. This was followed by a ban on commercial breeding and trade in almost all terrestrial wild animal species for consumption as food. As we noted at the time, this was a significant move which potentially heralded a newly precautionary approach to wildlife trade from the Chinese Government, but it did not go far enough as it did not cover trade for non-food purposes such as traditional medicine and ornamental items.
We produced recommendations for the law revision, noting that amending the law to prohibit commercial trade in threatened wild animal species is an opportunity for China to set out its stall as a conservation leader as it prepares to host a major biodiversity summit in 2021.
However, initial reports from Beijing on the revision process do not indicate any changes that would prohibit commercial trade in threatened species. While we have not yet seen a full draft to confirm language and analyse it in detail, the following are our comments on a summary of proposed amendments as reported by State media (such as this piece credited to Xinhua):
“Preventing public health risk” is reportedly added to language that sets out the purposes of the law, alongside protecting wildlife and ecological balance. It also adds “surveying wildlife diseases and their distribution” to responsibilities set out for government departments, as well as surveying and monitoring wildlife and their habitat.
Legislates against illegal consumption of wildlife
Language has been reportedly added to specifically prohibit illegal consumption of wildlife as food and the provision by online or physical markets of platforms to illegally buy, sell or consume wildlife or prohibited hunting tools. This could be significant in tackling illegal consumption itself – the current version of the law focuses on trade for the purposes of consumption as food, rather than the act of consumption itself.
Regulations expanded to cover non-protected species
The draft reportedly adds provisions which prohibit or restrict the hunting or large-scale killing of terrestrial wildlife that isn’t specifically protected.
While not specifically relevant to tigers, leopards, pangolins, bears or elephants, which are all nationally protected, this sounds like a genuinely positive addition. An example is given in the state media report of people using machines to catch earthworms on a large scale, stating that while they aren’t protected species, this kind of use should be prohibited as they play an important ecological function.
Improved capacity for wildlife rescue
While no details are given, the draft reportedly includes language to improve capacity for shelter and rescue of wildlife.
Cracks down on illegal wildlife markets
The revised draft reportedly requires that illegal wildlife markets and trade be resolutely prohibited and stopped. Of course illegal markets and illegal trade are already banned by definition, but this may indicate consolidation of political will to combat illegal trade and close illegal markets.
Clarifies responsibilities for enforcement
Again, while no details are currently available, the revised draft reportedly clarifies the responsibilities of different Government departments, as scattered and overlapping duties have posed a challenge to effective enforcement of the law. It also strengthens the responsibilities of local authorities, giving county-level government responsibilities for protection of wildlife in the jurisdiction.
Establishes mechanisms for multi-agency collaboration
The revision reportedly establishes a multi-agency law enforcement coordination mechanism, headed by the National Forestry and Grassland Administration and the Department of Fisheries.
Increases penalties for breaking the law
Penalties are reportedly established or strengthened for illegal consumption of wildlife as food or hunting, trade or transport of wildlife for the purposes of consumption as food, illegal hunting or large-scale killing of wildlife and illegal provision of genetic resources of wildlife that is endemic to China.
While these all sound like positive steps – particularly the provision of some protections for wildlife which isn’t included on the national protected species list (i.e. the vast majority of species) – and it is encouraging to see a proposal for public health to be written into the law as a fundamental principle, there is no indication that amendments are being made to provisions which allow for the commercial breeding and trade of even protected wild animal species for non-food purposes such as production of traditional medicines or ornamental items.
In the absence of additional notifications or further revisions to key Articles such as 25 and 27, it seems unlikely that this process will result in prohibition of commercial trade in pangolins, tigers, leopards, bears or other threatened species.
While there may be more news to follow, this is currently looking like another missed opportunity for China’s lawmakers to take a key step in reducing demand for wildlife species that are threatened by trade.