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Chinese ban on eating wild animals likely to become law: Q&A with WCS’s Aili Kang

A wet market in Anhui. China. Image by Kelly Guerin /We Animals

  • Wildlife Conservation Society’s China program director, Aili Kang, spoke to Mongabay about an ongoing review of wildlife legislation in China in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, which would permanently ban the consumption of wild animals.
  • The current debate in China is not about whether there should be such a ban, which could come in as soon as two months, but what shape the ban should take, according to Kang.
  • Businesses that breed wild species are pushing for these species to be excluded because they are raised in captivity and can be considered livestock.
  • While conservationists are calling for the permanent ban to apply to all species, the public health risk from interacting with reptile and amphibian species is lower than from birds and animals, so there is still uncertainty about whether the former would be included.

Over four months after the first cases of COVID-19 surfaced in China, the world remains in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic, with nearly 1.5 million confirmed cases and almost 89,000 deaths as of April 9. The novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is believed to have originated in bats and jumped to humans, most likely at a wet market in China’s Hubei province where wild animals were being sold. A move to amend wildlife laws to prevent future outbreaks is now gaining momentum in the country.

The Chinese ban on consumption of wild animals is likely to become permanent in the coming months, according to Aili Kang,  Executive Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Asia Program. This means it would be enshrined in the country’s wildlife legislation. A decision taken by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress on Feb. 24 will serve as the basis for amendments to existing wildlife laws.

Mongabay spoke to Kang about what the law could look like and its impact on the wildlife trade. In March, the WCS recommended that all commercial trade in wildlife for human consumption, especially birds and mammals, be banned globally and that markets that facilitate it be shut down. The inclusion of reptiles and amphibians is far from certain, however, because the threat of zoonotic disease outbreaks from these taxa is not as significant. Conservationists are pushing for them to be included in the hope that actions taken with public health in mind would also help curb the illegal wildlife trade.

Kang spoke about the opposition to such a move and how the ban raises questions about which species are considered “wild.” She also shed light on the gray areas that exist in enforcement. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Image courtesy: WCS

Mongabay: How has the Chinese policy concerning the wildlife trade and consumption evolved since the outbreak started?

Aili Kang: February 3 was the first time that 10 ministries and the administration at the national level jointly issued a special operation and forbid any type of wildlife trade during COVID-19 outbreak. It was a reaction to the pandemic outbreak itself. It was temporary.

After that, the State Administration for Market Regulation, the Forestry and Grassland Administration of China, and other ministries all announced a series of actions, closing all the markets temporarily and checking captive-breeding farms frequently. Then, on Feb. 24 the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress issued the decision [to ban the consumption of wild animals] which a lot of media discussed.

It was not an overnight decision. Before that, President Xi Jinping published an article on Feb. 3 and pointed out that it is critical to review relevant legislation and prevent risks to public health from sources such as consuming wild animals. This already gave a signal that the national government wants to take further action. The follow-up of that is the Feb. 24 decision.

The WCS policy on this is clear: To prevent future major viral outbreaks such as the COVID-19 outbreak impacting human health, well-being, economies and security on a global scale, WCS recommends stopping all commercial trade in wildlife for human consumption, particularly of birds and mammals, and closing all such markets.

Has it triggered any discussions about legislative reform?

Definitely. On the same day the decision was announced, the members of the Standing Committee also told Xinhua News that another decision was taken to kick off the review of the Wildlife Protection Law of China, to speed up the review of the Biosecurity Law, which is a new law, and to speed up the process of the review of the Animal Epidemic Prevention Law. They also decided on a comprehensive assessment of other relevant regulations.

That process is ongoing and includes consultation activities among various stakeholders. We are providing our recommendations to the relevant government agencies. All those recommendations from different groups, from the academic side and also from the business side, are being shared.

A bucket full of eels. Image by Rhett A. Butler

Are there groups that are opposed to making this decision to prohibit the consumption of wild animals permanent?

There are no groups opposed to a permanent ban, but there is pushback from the legal farming business side about what exactly the ban should be. There is farming of bamboo rats, which is one of the species that is discussed in the context of COVID-19. There is also a discussion about a small group of turtle species or reptile species, such as salamanders. Because there are captive-breeding farms, they wonder if those species should be included in the ban or not. Most of the debate focuses on certain species, including sika deer farming. Some people are suggesting that the government reconsider whether this animal should be considered a wild animal or captive one.

Most people agree that wild animals should not continue to be consumed, but the question is whether captive-bred wild animals can be considered wild or livestock. There is a lot of debate about some frog species. For birds, there is not a lot of debate.

The government is collecting information to see if they can find a balance. But the decision and various articles published by national government officials have made it clear that as long as it is in the list of nationally protected wild animals or nationally protected species with beneficial, economic or scientific research value, no matter if it is a mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian and aquatic species, all those are forbidden, so all terrestrial wild animals must be excluded from these lists.

An Asian black bear in a hammock at Tam Dao sanctuary in Vietnam, run by Animals Asia. Bear bile is used as in traditional Chinese medicine. Image by Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals.

What about the pet trade and the use of wild animal products in traditional medicine?

There are a lot of researchers in China who are suggesting that the government develop higher standards to assess zoonotic disease risks, improve detection and quarantine and control procedures for wild animals among different types of trade. In China, traders or practitioners need to get permission from various government agencies according to the features of the trade. Many groups suggest that the government should have a more transparent and traceable permission system to look into what animal is being traded and check if it is from legal captive breeding. Also, those animals entering the trade chain need to adhere to a very high standard for animal disease standard checking and auditing, to make sure they go through all the quarantine and epidemic checking processes. While the government may have some compromise, I think specialists in public health or zoonotic disease will push back because there is no zero-risk wild animal trade and a need for more health checking for any type of trade. Currently, a lot of the wild animal trade is not considered a high-risk business for public health. A more restricted permission system can discourage people from considering the wild animal trade as an income option in China.

For traditional medicine use, there is ongoing debate in China about using animal organs. Recently, China has decided to remove endangered species from its China Medicine Dictionary, the most important dictionary to record traditional medicine. From the public health consideration and to prevent the next pandemic, any practices related to processing or handling live animals need to be restricted and managed carefully. I expect some of these will be considered under the amendment of relevant laws, but not sure if it will be sufficient or not.

A pangolin at a rescue center in Cambodia. Image by Rhett A. Butler

Will the ban on consumption of wild animals help check the illegal trade?

Within the ban, the sixth clause is to require government at all levels to improve the law enforcement management system, make clear the main body of law enforcement responsibility, increase supervision, inspection and accountability, and strictly investigate and deal with violations of this decision and relevant laws and regulations. This will require law enforcement agencies to keep illegal trade as their priority target for enforcement.

A lot of the captive-breeding farms for consumption can be an umbrella for the illegal trade. When a lot of those farms cannot continue because of the ban, the illegal trade will lose the umbrella under which it continues.

From the consumption side, several provinces announced their own regulations for wildlife protection within which they mentioned punishing consumption behavior. These clauses will alert people to the cost of these illegal consumption behaviors and stop people engaging in the illegal trade. Fewer consumers mean less income for the illegal trade, which can also help crack down on the illegal trade, in my opinion. It is great to see some of the provinces publish more restrictive regulations than the decision made at the central level.

When might the review process end and the legislative amendments be made?

According to the Legislation Law, law amendment requires a review process by the National People’s Congress Conference or the Standing Committee of National People’s Congress. The review process includes a series of consultation among various ministries, administration, committees under the Standing Committee, Congress members with relevant background for the topics, and/or public. The earliest approval could occur within the next two months while the next Congress conference is organized, according to my understanding of the process mentioned in the law and ongoing discussions in China.

(Banner Image: A wet market in Anhui. China. Image by Kelly Guerin /We Animals)

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