Attempts to control the spread of diseases are also hindered by the fact that the industry for exotic animals in China, especially wild ones, is enormous.
A government-sponsored report in 2017 by the Chinese Academy of Engineering found the country’s wildlife trade was worth more than $73 billion and employed more than one million people.
Since the virus hitin December,almost 20,000 wildlife farms across seven Chinese provinces have been shut down or put under quarantine, including breeders specializing in peacocks, foxes, deer and turtles, according to local government press releases.
It isn’t clear what effect the ban might have on the industry’s future — but there are signs China’s population may have already been turning away from eating wild animals even before the epidemic.
A study by Beijing Normal University and the China Wildlife Conservation Association in 2012, found that in China’s major cities, a third of people had used wild animals in their lifetime for food, medicine or clothing — only slightly less than in their previous survey in 2004.
However, the researchers also found that just over 52% of total respondents agreed that wildlife should not be consumed. It was even higher in Beijing, where more than 80% of residents were opposed to wildlife consumption.
In comparison, about 42% of total respondents were against the practice during the previous survey in 2004.
Since the coronavirus epidemic, there has been vocal criticism of the trade in exotic animals and calls for a crackdown. A group of 19 academics from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and leading universities even jointly issued a public statement calling for an end to the trade, saying it should be treated as a “public safety issue.”
“The vast majority of people within China react to the abuse of wildlife in the way people in other countries do — with anger and revulsion,” said Aron White, wildlife campaigner at the Environmental Investigation Agency.
“I think we should listen to those voices that are calling for change and support those voices.”
Traditional medicine loophole
A significant barrier to a total ban on the wildlife trade is the use of exotic animals in traditional Chinese medicine.
Beijing has been strongly promoting
the use of traditional Chinese medicine under President Xi Jinping and the industry is now worth an estimated $130 billion.
As recently as October 2019, state-run media China Daily
reported Xi as saying that “traditional medicine is a treasure of Chinese civilization embodying the wisdom of the nation and its people.”
Many species that are eaten as food in parts of China are also used in the country’s traditional medicine.
The new ban makes an exception made for wild animals used in traditional Chinese medicine. According to the ruling, the use of wildlife is not illegal for this, but now must be “strictly monitored.” The announcement doesn’t make it clear, however, how this monitoring will occur or what the penalties are for inadequate protection of wild animals, leaving the door open to abuse.
A 2014 study by the Beijing Normal University and the China Wildlife Conservation Association found that while deer is eaten as a meat, the animal’s penis and blood are also used in medicine. Both bears and snakes are used for both food and medicine.
Wildlife campaigner Aron White said that under the new restrictions there was a risk of wildlife being sold or bred for medicine, but then trafficked for food. He said the Chinese government needed to avoid loopholes by extending the ban to all vulnerable wildlife, regardless of use.
“(Currently), the law bans the eating of pangolins but doesn’t ban the use of their scales in traditional Chinese medicine,” he said. “The impact of that is that overall the consumers are receiving are mixed messages.”