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The coronavirus pandemic has brought into sharp relief structures and behaviours that increase the likelihood of zoonotic spillover – diseases transferring from animals to people – which can lead to pandemics. Key among these are actions that disrupt and erode diverse ecosystems and create novel opportunities for contact between species, including deforestation and land conversion, industrial livestock farming, and commercial wildlife trade.
Wildlife trade in China has come under particular scrutiny due to initial suggestions that the origins of the pandemic may have been linked to wildlife markets in the country, as was likely the case with the SARS epidemic in 2002. Genuinely addressing future human health risk alongside the interlinked biodiversity and climate crises is a global challenge requiring collaborative solutions, including transforming consumption patterns in the richest countries. Issues around commercial wildlife trade and farming that present a risk to biodiversity or human health are, moreover, far from restricted to China.
Nonetheless, a critical focus on the Chinese government’s environmental policies is justified given the global implications for climate and biodiversity, and associated impacts on human health. China is itself a megadiverse country, home to a large proportion of global biodiversity. Chinese state investment in fossil fuels overseas carries potentially existential climate risks, while the Belt and Road Initiative more broadly poses multifarious challenges for biodiversity.
Chinese consumers – at home and in other countries – are meanwhile a primary source of demand for many species which are seriously threatened by illegal harvesting and trafficking, from Asian big cats, pangolins, bears, rhinos and elephants to rosewoods, totoaba fish and seahorses. In many cases, an inescapable factor in this demand has been official policies which legitimise commercial exploitation of threatened wild animals.
The Current Legal Regime
China’s Wildlife Protection Law (or Wild Animal Protection Law, since it does not cover plants) enshrines concepts of ‘rational utilisation’ and lays out mechanisms for the commercial breeding and trade in even protected species. These elements of the law have long been controversial in China, with many legislators and NGOs having urged revisions to further restrict trade in threatened species.
Beyond the text of the law, support for commercialisation of threatened wildlife is pervasive within key government institutions supposedly tasked with the protection of wildlife. For example, a 2018 statement from the National Forestry and Grasslands Administration (NFGA) regarding the ‘healthy development of the rare animal medical industry’; in this, the NFGA seems to characterise its primary role as guaranteeing supply of wildlife to the industry, pledging to ‘meet and safeguard the demand from traditional Chinese medicine for wild animal and plant ingredients’. While there are certainly many dedicated wildlife advocates working in government agencies in China, the organisational culture and overriding priorities within the NFGA have long been a major impediment to efforts to reduce demand for threatened wildlife.
What Has Changed, and What Has Not
So what has changed in 2020? On 24 February, China’s highest law-making body, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, adopted a set of ‘Decisions’ which prohibited commercial breeding and trade in most terrestrial wild animal species for the purposes of consumption as food. Contrary to some media coverage, this was not a total ban on wildlife trade, although it did go significantly further than the Wildlife Protection Law, which only prohibits trade for consumption as food if the species is protected.
The February prohibitions did not, however, cover aquatic species, despite the often serious impacts of farming and trade on groups such as amphibians and freshwater turtles. The Chinese giant salamander, for example, is farmed in its millions across China for food, but decades of overhunting – including for stocking of breeding facilities – have proven catastrophic. A major recent study could not confirm any surviving wild populations at any of the sites surveyed – a stark reminder that in practice, farming of wildlife frequently does not relieve pressure on wild populations but, conversely, hastens their extinction.
Moreover, the Decisions did not address breeding and trade for non-food purposes, such as traditional Chinese medicine or ornamental items. As such, the provisions of the Wildlife Protection Law – under which legal trade in pangolin scales, leopard bone and skins of captive-bred tigers is permitted – continue to apply.
While the broad prohibition on trade in terrestrial wild animals as food indicated a newly precautionary approach to wildlife trade among some major government decision-makers, developments since paint a more complex picture. On the one hand, widely reported enforcement operations show the new policy is being implemented, and programmes to compensate wildlife farmers who can no longer operate are crucial for the effectiveness and legitimacy of the policy. On the other, delays in determining the details of the ban left some farmers in limbo, facing financial strain, while reports that animals in some shuttered farms have been buried alive are highly distressing and a reminder of the urgent need for animal welfare legislation in China.
Support for the use of threatened wild animal species in traditional medicine has proven to be unbending in several areas of officialdom. A guidance document from the NFGA on implementing the February Decisions recommends redirecting breeding and stock towards medicinal use where possible. Trade in traditional medicine products containing the bile of captive bears not only remains legal, but a formulation containing bear bile was even included in national treatment plans for coronavirus issued by the National Health Commission and the National Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine in February, and later in June in guidance from the Beijing Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Other species-specific developments paint a picture of significant progress hampered by half-steps. A draft updated list of nationally protected wild animal species published in June contains much good news, with new protections proposed for a large number of birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish. Native pangolins have also been granted first-class protected species status, while raw pangolin scales are no longer listed as a key medicinal ingredient in the 2020 edition of the central pharmacopoeia, a state list of approved medicines. However, while this move was widely misinterpreted as a ban on use of pangolin scales in traditional medicine, in reality pangolin is still listed in the 2020 pharmacopoeia as an ingredient within approved medicinal formulations. Other parts of threatened wild animal species are similarly still promoted as legitimate ingredients in medicinal formulations in the 2020 book, including leopard bone, bear bile, saiga horn and natural musk.
What Needs to Be Done
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 so far, 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.
As yet – no doubt due in large part to lobbying from wealthy and well-connected commercial interests – key decision-makers in government are lagging behind such advocates. While 2020 has seen some significant changes to wildlife policies in China which – if implemented effectively and ethically – should represent significant steps forward, for now these changes fall well short of the ‘transformative change’ required worldwide to avoid biodiversity collapse.
Ultimately, if China wants to take up a mantle of global leadership in biodiversity and make Chinese President Xi Jinping’s vision of an ‘ecological civilization’ a reality, it needs to commit wholeheartedly to reducing demand for threatened wildlife. Demand reduction is a complex but necessary challenge requiring a suite of concurrent and coordinated actions, including ensuring clarity in official messaging. To achieve this, the Chinese government must unequivocally end promotion of commercial exploitation of threatened species, cemented by changes to the Wildlife Protection Law to prohibit commercial use of threatened species, and backed up by well-managed phasing out of commercial breeding facilities such as tiger farms. Lawmakers have a timely opportunity to do just this, as revision of the Wildlife Protection Law is currently underway, with a revised draft anticipated in the second half of the year.
Also essential is the effective enforcement of laws resulting in deterrent sentences, and research into the motivations behind consumption on which evidence-based behaviour change campaigns can be built.
The gravity of the biodiversity and climate crises are such that we cannot be content with half-measures. China’s leadership must build on momentum to date with genuine commitment to ending commercial exploitation of threatened wildlife. In doing so, they would be respecting the clear wishes of huge numbers of people in China.
That said, governments, businesses and consumers around the world must reject lazy and unjust narratives that suggest climate breakdown, biodiversity loss and associated pandemic risk are simply a problem ‘over there’. All these actors have a part to play in demanding and creating a relationship with the natural world based on respect, sustainability and fairness.
Aron White is a China specialist at the Environmental Investigation Agency, an NGO dedicated to combating environmental crime and abuse based in London.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
BANNER IMAGE: Chinese consumers are a primary source of demand for many species which are threatened by illegal harvesting and trafficking across the world. Pictured is an illicit endangered wildlife market in Myanmar. Courtesy of Dan Bennett / Wikimedia Commons.