EIA’s Tiger Campaign has since 2013 been engaging with developments in government policy in China, with the objective of securing permanent policy changes to end tiger farming and close legal domestic markets for parts and products of tigers and other big cats. As the primary consumer market for tiger products, China’s official policies relating to tiger trade and the impact they have on demand are of critical importance for all wild tigers.
Starting in 2013, EIA researched, prepared and shared detailed recommendations for a major overhaul of China’s Wildlife Protection Law – the country’s most important piece of legislation covering wildlife conservation and trade. The government pressed ahead with a revised law – passed in 2016 – that still left the door open for commercial exploitation of tigers and other threatened wildlife.
In 2018, the government took a leap in the wrong direction when a 25-year ban on the use of tiger bone and rhino horn in traditional medicine was repealed, replaced by a new directive which allowed use of captive-bred tiger bone and rhino horn in some circumstances. Despite statements that implementation of the new policy was to be delayed, a continued failure to adopt an unambiguous ban and phase out commercial breeding is still putting tigers and rhinos at risk.
In 2020, the emergence of COVID-19 and reported links to wildlife trade provided the government with a greater impetus to address the risks of commercial exploitation of wildlife, and another revision to the Wildlife Protection Law was announced in February 2020. A revised draft was published in October 2020. EIA is following developments closely, and will continue to campaign for policy change to ensure a zero-tolerance approach to tiger trade in China
China’s current Wildlife Protection Law – and the October 2020 revision draft – leaves the door wide open for legal, commercial trade in the parts of products of any wildlife species, even those subject to the highest levels of protection such as pangolins and leopards. Meanwhile, the continuing ambiguity and effective endorsement of tiger trade from the Government is serving to maintain and stimulate demand, while preventing any much-needed progress to phase out tiger farms and destroy stockpiles, instead sending a message to tiger farmers and the pharmaceutical industry that trade could be opened up at any time. The fact that permits to trade in protected species have been issued to companies previously implicated in trade in tiger bone wine and tiger skins, including tiger farms, is serious cause for concern.
It must be recognised that support for commercial use of threatened species is far from a majority position in China. Many groups in the country have long been arguing for greater restrictions on wildlife trade, and in 2020, calls to extend prohibitions to traditional medicine have been heard from Chinese academics, NGOs, medical experts and even several members of the National People’s Congress.
A further revision to the Wildlife Protection Law announced in 2020 in the wake of the coronavirus (COVID-19) represents another opportunity to permanently prohibit commercial trade in the parts and products of threatened species – including captive-bred specimens.
The revised draft published in October 2020 contained some positive changes, such as consolidating a prohibition on trade in terrestrial wild animals for consumption as food first announced in February 2020, along with improvements to enforcement mechanisms and increased penalties. However, the changes did not go far enough, in that commercial breeding and trade – even in protected species such as tigers – is still permitted for non-food purposes such as traditional medicine or decorative items. EIA has prepared detailed comments and recommendations on the 2020 draft.
In the interests of biodiversity, public health and governance worldwide, China’s lawmakers must use the revision to the Wildlife Protection Law to permanently prohibit trade in the parts and products of threatened wild animal species for any purpose, including for production of medicines and decorative items. This should be backed up by further amendments to restrict the breeding of threatened species to genuine conservation programmes which contribute to the recovery of the species in the wild.
Action is urgently needed from China’s leadership to declare zero tolerance for all trade in tiger parts and products, from any source.
Key concerns regarding China’s Wildlife Protection Law (WPL)
Commercial trade and utilisation of endangered species is permitted and formalised
The Wildlife Protection Law formalises a permitting system under which protected wildlife may be traded commercially and consumed. Provisions allow for trade in the parts and products off any species for “scientific research, captive breeding, public exhibition or performances, heritage conservation or other special purposes”. In practice, the ‘heritage conservation’ loophole is being interpreted to allow large-scale commercial trade in leopard bone and pangolin scales for production of medicinal products. Permits to trade in and use protected species are also being issued to companies previously implicated in trade in tiger bone wine and tiger skins.
The law further sanctions commercial trade in the parts and products of captive-bred specimens of protected species, without the requirement for any ‘special purposes’. Trading permits may be issued for products made from captive-bred specimens of protected species, if that species is included on separate ‘utilisation lists’. The first versions of these lists were published in 2017. Moreover, continued legal trade in medicines containing the bile of captive-bred bears, and the 2018 State Council notification which permitted the use of captive-bred tiger bones, demonstrates that in practice, a species does not have be included on this official list for commercial exploitation of captive populations to be permitted.
Commercial captive breeding of endangered species is permitted
The WPL enshrines a captive breeding permit system that allows commercial breeding of protected wildlife, including tigers. This system has underpinned the explosion of tiger ‘farms’ in China, which represent a major threat to the survival of wild tigers.
Captive-bred populations of protected species may be subject to different protection measures
The WPL states that captive populations of endangered species included on ‘utilisation lists’ are subject to different protection measures. This could seriously undermine enforcement and present opportunities for the laundering of wild-caught specimens. In addition, supporting regulations on the valuation of wildlife state that the official value of captive-bred specimens is half that of their wild counterparts. In China, the severity of a crime involving illegal trade (and therefore the corresponding sentence) is often determined in part using the value of the seized product. This provision could potentially lead to more lenient sentencing for crimes involving captive-bred tigers and other big cats, and so indicates that the Chinese Government has not recognised the severity of trade in captive-bred tigers and its impact on wild tigers.
Trade in protected species is permitted for the purposes of ‘performance’
The permit systems enshrined in the law allow the sale and use of protected species for “public exhibition or performance”. Wildlife performances, such as the use of tigers in circuses as frequently documented in China and elsewhere, serve no educational or conservation purpose, and are often linked with both trade in wildlife parts and products and welfare issues and animal abuse.
Possession of illegally-sourced wildlife and wildlife products is not criminalised
The law does not specifically prohibit the possession of illegally-sourced wildlife and wildlife products, which limits opportunities for enforcement to combat illegal wildlife trade.
The auction of seized wildlife items is permitted
The 2020 Wildlife Protection Law revision draft states that seized wildlife and wildlife products may be auctioned. This could create a way to legalise illegally acquired specimens such as tiger skins for auction, which may encourage illegal activity, as well as stimulating demand for the product.
Management of nationally protected wildlife is de-centralised
The WPL assigns most responsibility for its implementation to provincial-level government departments, including responsibility for issuing trading permits and production quotas, but does not establish mechanisms for central planning, supervision or accountability. This increases the opportunities for a poorly-regulated legal trade in tigers and other species threatened by trade, and impedes China’s ability to report on obligations under CITES.
Lists of protected species are out of date
Despite the language of the Wildlife Protection Law requiring that the list of species subject to state protection is to be revised every five years, the list currently in effect has not been updated since 1988. While draft lists circulated in 2019 and 2020 promised a major improvement – offering protection to many more species, including several which are already critically endangered – the new list has still not been officially adopted.
English translations of key legislation
We have prepared an informal translation of China’s Wildlife Protection Law, along with subsidiary regulations and other key documents and announcements relating to wildlife trade.
Wildlife Protection Law of the People’s Republic of China, 2020 revision draft (English translation)
Wildlife Protection Law of the People’s Republic of China, 2020 revision draft (original Chinese)
Wildlife Protection Law of the People’s Republic of China, 2018 (English translation)
Wildlife Protection Law of the People’s Republic of China, 2018 (original Chinese)
2018 State Council Notification “Regarding strict control of management and utilisation of rhinoceroses, tigers and the products thereof” (English and Chinese), which repealed the 1993 prohibition and instead permits medicinal use of captive-bred tiger bone and rhino horn in some circumstances
SFA announcement No. 14, 2017 which designates the central State Forestry Administration as the agency responsible for approving permits for the captive breeding and selling, purchase and utilisation of 10 types of terrestrial wildlife, including tigers, leopards, rhinos and elephants
2017 State Forestry Administration Notification No. 46, laying out methodology for valuing wildlife and wildlife products, used to help determine penalties. The notification states that captive-bred specimens should be regarded as worth 50% of their wild counterparts
2017 State Forestry Administration Notification No. 47, stipulating administration regulations for the shelter and rescue of wildlife
2016 draft regulations for the administration of the special marking system which enables commercial trade in terrestrial wildlife under special state protection and the products thereof
2016 draft regulations for the management and disposal of seized terrestrial wildlife and wildlife products, which proposes allowing auction of some seized wildlife
Wildlife Protection Law of the People’s Republic of China, 2020 revision draft (English translation) The revised draft continues to allow commercial trade of threatened species for purposes such as traditional medicine and ornamental items, despite containing several positive changes
NFGA notification of 8 April 2020 “regarding reliable and proper follow-up work on the prohibition on eating wild animals” (English translation). The notification lays out options for dealing with animals held in farms, including release into the wild and shifting supply to traditional medicine
Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs Notification notification from 8 April 2020 announcing public consultation on the “National Catalogue of Livestock and Poultry Genetic Resources” (English translation), species of which populations maybe exempt from the ban on trading as food
24 February 2020 Decisions of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress which prohibited breeding of and trade in most terrestrial wild animals for consumption as food (English translation)
26 January 2020 notification from the State Administration for Market Regulation, Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs and National Forestry and Grasslands Administration laying out temporary prohibitions on wildlife trade
Our campaign for better protection for tigers and other wildlife through the WPL revision process
China’s Wildlife Protection Law was originally enacted in 1989 and espoused a strong ethos of “breeding, domestication and utilisation” of wildlife, including endangered species that were listed has having the highest levels of protection. The Wildlife Protection Law was one of a number of laws relating to ecosystems and the environment to come under the scrutiny of the National People’s Congress (NPC) in recent years, to ensure they were compatible with the Xi Jinping’s promotion of “ecological civilisation”.
The NPC started preparation for revision of the Wildlife Protection Law in 2013 and conducted extensive research and consultation. The first version of a revised WPL was circulated for public consultation in January 2016. There was a furious backlash from Chinese academics, lawyers, biologists and NGOs as they worried that the proposed revisions, if adopted, would take China’s Wildlife Protection law and regulations in the wrong direction. We submitted comments as part of this consultation.
In April 2016, a second version of a revised WPL was proposed, making a few concessions to some of the concerns voiced earlier, but did not go far enough. Even senior members of China’s law-making body expressed concern that the second version continued to promote utilisation over conservation, and there was a second round of public consultation. Once again we submitted a summary of key concerns and detailed suggestions to improve relevant provisions.
Two months later, the third version of a revised WPL revision was presented at an NPC Standing Committee meeting. Unlike the previous two versions, which were circulated for public comment, the third version was deliberated on by NPC members only. On 2 July 2016, this third and final version of the WPL was passed.
If you would like to learn more about the details of this 2016 revision process, we prepared a comparison table of the three revisions alongside the previous version of the law.
In October 2016, the State Forestry Administration (SFA) – the main Government department responsible for protecting wildlife and thus enforcing the Wildlife Protection Law – published a set of draft regulations which provided more detail as to how the SFA intended to put the revised law into practice.
We had major concerns about these regulations, which emphasise utilisation of wildlife over its conservation to an even greater degree than the law they are supposed to implement. Of particular concern is the regulation detailing the SFA’s ‘special marking’ scheme, which further enshrines a legal commercial trade in protected species, and the regulation on disposal of seized items, which potentially allows for the auction of seized items derived from protected wildlife such as tigers. We submitted our concerns to the SFA during its public consultation process in November 2016.
A series of additional supplementary regulations were then released, including announcements of the first species to be included on ‘utilisation lists’. The titles of these documents make very clear that these species represent only the “first batch” to be included on the lists.
When a new State Council order was issued in 2018, allowing use of farmed tiger bone and rhino horn in medicine, we voiced our strong concerns that such a move risked being a death knell for wild tigers and rhinos. Since then, we have continued to raise the alarm over the policy – which has not been officially reversed – and advocate for an unambiguous ban on any trade in the parts and products of tigers and other big cats, including from captive sources.
In February 2020, a further revision of the Wildlife Protection Law was announced in the wake of widespread public concern around wildlife trade in the wake of the coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak. EIA prepared detailed comments and recommendations in advance of this revision, in which we called on lawmakers to use this opportunity to comprehensively prohibit commercial breeding and domestic trade in threatened species.
Following a February 2020 prohibition on breeding of and trade in most terrestrial wild animals for consumption as food in the wake of COVID-19 and concerns around public health risks posed by wildlife consumption, a number of draft policies were issued by government agencies alongside calls for comment. EIA and other NGOs submitted comment to these consultations, including:
- EIA response to Interim Measures for Basic Medical Insurance
- EIA comment on Guidance for Reviewing Patent Applications from the Field of Traditional Medicine
- Response from 32 non-governmental organisations to Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs consultation on National Catalogue of Livestock and Poultry Genetic Resources
Then in October 2020, China’s National People’s Congress released a revised draft of the Wildlife Protection Law alongside a call from comments from the public, open until 19 November 2020. The revised draft consolidated the February prohibition on trade in terrestrial wild animals as food, alongside positive additions relating to enforcement and sentencing, but failed to amend provisions which allow commercial breeding and trade of threatened species for non-food purposes. EIA submitted detailed comments to the consultation (in English and Chinese), and contributed to sign-on letters calling for further changes from experts and NGOs. Meanwhile, we compiled an information briefing raising concerns that companies that had been issued government permits to trade in and utilise protected species included many that had been implicated in commercial trade in tigers, leopards and elephants, suggesting that the true scale of legal trade in highly threatened species may be considerable.
In May 2022, EIA and other NGOs submitted a response to a public consultation on China’s proposed special marking system for terrestrial wild animals. Our full response is available here.