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Why China’s Wildlife Consumption Ban Falls Short

On February 24th, the Chinese government issued a permanent ban on the consumption of all terrestrial wild animals, including their hunting, trade, and transportation.  The ban excludes staple livestock such as pigs, cows, chickens, and sheep. While this is a step in the right direction for public health and conservation efforts, there are numerous loopholes and preexisting conditions to consider when evaluating the efficacy of this decision.

This permanent ban came after a late January decision to temporarily cease the consumption of wildlife, due to the link between the COVID-19 outbreak and wild animals kept in Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market.  The virus likely originated from a horseshoe bat, which transferred to an intermediary, possibly a pangolin, and then to a human.  This preliminary ban is strikingly similar to China’s action in response to the 2003-2004 SARS outbreak, a virus that killed 800 people and infected 8,000 people worldwide. Along with a ban on the hunting, trading, and consumption of wildlife, tens of thousands of civets, the suspected mammal intermediary host of the virus, were drowned or electrocuted.  Despite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimating three out of four new or emerging infectious diseases in humans come from animals, the 2003 restriction was lifted just three months after it was put in place. By 2019, the civet industry was once again thriving.  The National Forestry and Grassland Administration even republished a Jiangxi province news report boasting that it had helped 1,700 people in a single town take up civet breeding. 

Now that a permanent ban has been put in place, one might think the problem is solved and viruses like SARS and COVID-19 have no place in our future.  Instead, the 74 billion dollar wildlife industry in China— the largest wildlife industry in the world— will continue to use loopholes and exploit spotty legislation and lax enforcement.  One of the primary concerns with the most recent ban is that it excludes wildlife use for medicinal purposes, fur, laboratory research, or pets.  

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has been used for thousands of years to supposedly cure an array of illnesses and ailments.  While the cultural importance of TCM may have some impact as to why it was excluded from the ban, another probable cause is corporate interests and corruption.  The China Wildlife Conservation Association (CWCA) is a nongovernmental organization under fire for disguising wildlife farming and poaching as wildlife protection.  Shen Wangping, a volunteer with the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation explains, “People think this administration’s job is to protect wild animals. But the organization’s main objective is to push the breeding of wildlife everywhere, to give out permits for wildlife breeding and sales.”  These flimsy permits are then used to capture wild animals, pretend that they are farmed, and sell them legally to wet markets like the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market and TCM companies, according to Wangping. Additionally, three out of the fourteen board vice-chairs of the CWCA are TCM company executives. One of these board vice chairs is Gui Jiaxue, executive of Guangyuyuan, which sells guilingji, a medicine made out of pangolin scales. 

Pangolins are one of many animals to be both eaten and used in TCM.  The Wildlife Conservation Society noted that “This creates a potential loophole for traffickers who may exploit the nonfood exemptions to sell or trade live wildlife,” in a recent statement.  A 2014 study conducted by Li Zhang and Feng Yin noted many animals, such as deer, snakes, bears, and lizards are also used for both food and medicine. Some of the techniques to create TCM are also incredibly inhumane. The latest edition of China’s recommendations for COVID-19 treatment includes a TCM called tan re jing. The main ingredient is bear bile, which is harvested from captive bears by inserting rubber or metal tubes through a bear’s stomach so the bile, often contaminated with blood, pus, feces, and urine, can free-drip for collection. 

 These recommendations have been taken into account in hospitals all across China.  85 percent of COVID-19 patients were given a combination of TCM and mainstream antiviral drugs, according to Xu Nanping, a vice-minister of science and technology.  However, there are no proven benefits of TCM and it’s thought to merely act as a placebo.  A doctor in Guangzhou who declined to give his name due to the sensitivity of the issue, stated, “Those patients would have recovered even if they hadn’t taken the Chinese medicine.”  

In addition to main sectors of the wildlife industry being exempt from the ban, spotty regulation also stymies progress. China’s Wildlife Protection Law (WPL) was adopted in 1988, but the list of protected wild animals has not been updated for three decades. The law specifies two tiers of animals and the government entities responsible for their protection. The first tier— including giant pandas, snow leopards and Asian elephants—are protected by the State Council, China’s highest governing body.  The second tier— including black bears and pangolins— are protected by local governments.  According to a 2018 U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission report,  “The priorities and interests of local governments and the central government are not always aligned. Local governments are under pressure to sustain economic performance and incentivized to loosely regulate wildlife industries that contribute to the local economy.”  A former wildlife protection official in Guangxi province also recounts being offered near-daily bribes to turn a blind eye to wildlife smuggling. 

Despite wet markets reopening in Wuhan as life slowly returns to normal, there is still a glimmer of hope. China will have the chance to make an instrumental step from commercialization to conservation when the National People’s Congress is expected to amend the WPL later this year. Conservationists hope that China will ban all wildlife use, including in medicine, as well as seriously regulate or even end the wildlife farming industry altogether.   Zhang and Yin’s study also found an attitude shift in China’s view on the consumption of wildlife.  The results of their study show that 52.7% of participants agreed that wildlife should not be consumed, a big jump from the 42.7% of participants in 2004.  Their study also found that people with higher income are more likely to consume wildlife, as having access to exotic wildlife is seen as a symbol of status.  This means that widespread bans on wildlife won’t put low-income Chinese citizens at risk of food insecurity.  It is incumbent on the Chinese government to recognize the high stakes of sound public health legislation and the safe preservation of wildlife across the globe. 


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