Leopard bone for sale, Chongqing, China

UN Biodiversity Conference shows ambition for wildlife – will China act to build on the momentum?

The first phase of the latest conference of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD CoP15) ended with a renewed sense of optimism as 195 countries signed onto the Kunming Declaration with 17 commitments, acknowledging the need to reverse the world’s catastrophic loss of biodiversity.

It is now essential that the Declaration is translated into a concrete action plan by April 2022 which will hold both state and private sector stakeholders accountable.

Further, financing needs to be ramped up, to which end China’s pledge of 1.5 billion RMB (£170 million) to help developing countries with biodiversity conservation is a welcome start.

Leopard bone TCM product (c) EIA

One of the low-hanging fruits for China is to put an end to trade in endangered species used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) products and decorative items.

At present, an exemption in China’s Wildlife Protection Law – the country’s most important piece of legislation covering wildlife conservation and trade – still allows legal trade in protected species for the purposes of “scientific research, captive breeding, public exhibition or performances, heritage conservation or other special purposes.”

This exemption is used to allow legal and commercial trade in the parts and products of any wildlife species, even those subject to the highest levels of protection such as tigers, leopards and pangolins.

Exemptions also enable trade in the parts of captive tiger, which stimulates demand and puts remaining wild populations of big cats under pressure.

After the emergence of COVID-19, which is suspected to have originated in wildlife before jumping to humans, the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress adopted further restrictions on wildlife trade and banned trade in most species for consumption as food.

However, the decision did not ban trade in threatened wildlife for medicinal or ornamental items. As such, the planned revisions to the Wildlife Protection Law initiated in 2020 provide an opportunity to prohibit all trade in threatened wildlife once and for all in the interests of biodiversity and human health.

EIA’s research shows that at least 24 Chinese pharmaceutical companies list leopard bones as an ingredient in their traditional medicines, despite the fact there are fewer than 450 wild leopards left in the country. Such practices undermine China’s conservation efforts, the credibility of TCM and economic opportunities for Chinese pharmaceutical companies.

Traditional Chinese medicine product made with pangolin, via yaozs.com

Pangolin scale TCM product

In September 2021, Norges Bank, the central bank of Norway, divested from four major traditional Chinese medicine firms for posing an “unacceptable risk” of contributing to severe environmental damage. These companies manufacture products with ingredients including leopard bone, pangolin scales, saiga antelope horns or musk deer pods.

With the ambition and commitment China has demonstrated at CoP15, there is no excuse for it to continue allowing trade in items that devastate already endangered species. For example, leopards have disappeared from 85 per cent of their historical range in Asia – and China’s demand plays a large role in that alarming trend.

CoP15 demonstrated China’s firm commitment to biodiversity conservation. The Government should therefore ensure that loopholes in its domestic laws do not undermine its ambitions.

As such, EIA calls on China’s policymakers to:

  • seize the momentum of CoP15 and amend the Wildlife Protection Law to remove exemptions which enable domestic trade in endangered species for medicinal and decorative purposes;
  • honour the will of the CITES Parties and implement relevant Resolutions and Decisions, including the phase-out of tiger farms;
  • promote plant-based alternatives that are already accepted and used within traditional Chinese medicine.