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Public attitudes in China have shifted substantially to favour stricter regulations on the wildlife trade and a willingness to stop consuming wildlife, researchers reported recently in the Chinese journal Biodiversity Science (生物多样性). Conservationists in China are optimistic that increased attention on wildlife consumption since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic will boost national efforts to prioritise biodiversity conservation.

The coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, thought to arise from wild bats sold in a meat and produce marketplace, spotlighted the public health risks of China’s rampant and often illegal wildlife trade. “By now, if you enter any cities and even rural areas in China, you can see slogans or pictures that we should keep healthy and not eat wildlife,” said environmental scientist Xiangying Shi of Peking University and executive director of Shan Shui Conservation Center, lead author of the study.

The Chinese government’s wildlife consumption ban, enacted in February 2020, was surprisingly swift, Shi said. Government agencies have since followed up with policies to compensate wildlife farmers who were affected by the ban, which Shi called “encouraging progress.”

To measure how the pandemic might have swayed public opinion about wildlife, Shi and a team of Chinese researchers from six institutions and conservation organisations posted an online survey in February 2020 on social networking platforms. This survey method is an increasingly common practice in China for environmental policy research. The team collected over 100,000 total responses, which they whittled down to 74,040 after removing duplicate and incomplete responses. They then weighted the answers to control for selection bias.

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More than 90 percent of respondents supported a strict ban on wildlife consumption, trade, and exhibition outside of zoos, the researchers found. “We expected that people would support [the ban],” Shi told Mongabay, “but we didn’t expect such a high ratio.”

A large number of responses from young, urban citizens might explain some of the overwhelming support, said study coauthor Lingyun Xiao, a field ecologist at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou, China. Still, Xiao found those results inspiring.

With more education in schools on the importance of protecting wildlife, Xiao said, “We do feel that the younger generation is gradually changing their attitude. So the future, I think, will be bright. It just takes time.”

Meanwhile, national and international NGOs in China report that public awareness and support of conservation has been rising. “Things are changing dramatically, especially because of the big lesson—the pandemic,” said Jinfeng Zhou, Secretary General of the China Biodiversity and Green Development Fund in Beijing, who was not involved with the study.

In February 2019, when Zhou lobbied the government to remove pangolin scales from China’s list of approved traditional medicines, he said he was told to “get lost.” But his second attempt several months ago met with success: China upgraded the legal protections for pangolins to the same status as the nation’s beloved panda, prohibiting nearly all domestic trade and use.

Big education campaigns about conserving wildlife have worked very well to raise public awareness in China, said Steve Blake, chief China representative of the international NGO WildAid, based in San Francisco. For instance, WildAid was behind the anti-ivory campaign “When the buying stops, the killing can, too,” which created so much public support that China banned the ivory trade in 2017.

Since then, Blake noted, the Chinese government has been more open to discussing wildlife issues, strengthening enforcement and prioritising it from the top. Critically, he said, state media have supported these efforts.

In fact, many Chinese do not consider eating wild animals a cultural norm. “Eating wildlife is very rare, especially in cities,” said Shi. It’s only common “in some southern areas,” or when a tourist wants to “try something new,” she said. “And I know many people will think it’s very dangerous and disgusting to eat wildlife.”

Further, some online discussion platforms, such as Weibo, featured tens of thousands of comments during the pandemic from Chinese citizens denouncing the practice.

The wildlife consumption ban has already led to tangible change in China. This year, China already has prosecuted more than 15,000 people for wildlife-related crimes, a 66 percent increase from 2019, according to state prosecutors.

“For food consumption, [the Chinese government] already banned all terrestrial species, which is a really great procedure,” Xiao told Mongabay. However, she noted, “for the other usages, like exotic pets or in Chinese medicine, I think [we still have] a long way to go.”

Although people tend to think of China as an autocracy, said Xiao, the reality is more nuanced. The country’s vast government system and frequent turnover among managers means that “there are always people who are willing to accept new ideas and change the old systems—as long as you give feasible suggestions,” she said.

The response to the pandemic “is just one example that we can actually push things toward the right direction,” Xiao added. “Although [we can’t change] everything, still—step by step—we are changing it.”

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Emily Harwitz and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org.



Bangladesh is often called the “Land of Rivers” and the Supreme Court echoed this sentiment in July 2019, when it determined that all 700 rivers have standing to sue those who harm them in court. This decision marked a milestone in the rights of nature movement- a growing international movement that seeks recognition of ecosystems and species as living entities with legal rights, rather than merely property for human use. Bangladesh now joins 28 other countries with existing or pending legislation giving legal rights to nature, including New Zealand’s Whanganui River and Columbia’s Amazon Rainforest. But how exactly are rights of nature enforced, and can they effectively protect our Earth?    

How Rights of Nature Work

Giving nature legal rights is not a novel idea. Indigenous populations have given nature rights in their customary law for centuries past. However, the proliferation of the rights of nature in environmental law is largely credited to the work of University of Southern California Law Professor Christopher Stone, who argued in 1972 in his seminal article “Should Trees have Standing?” that “nature should have its own voice” and be able to bring a legal case, as any plaintiff would, against its wrongdoers. Although the idea that forests, rivers and even wild rice can “speak” in court might seem peculiar to us at first, we only have to look to corporations and nation-states as everyday examples of entities that have been recognised as legal persons and can nominate representatives to litigate on their behalf. Giving nature rights works in the same way, with legal custodians like the Bangladeshi National River Conservation Commission or even citizens stepping “into the shoes” of nature and suing on its behalf. The content of these rights generally cover the right for nature to “exist, persist, evolve and regenerate,” and like other rights, compel legal remedies including the payment of damages if infringed upon. Given that who is given legal rights is constantly expanding- women, children, and African American slaves were once considered rightless, after all- there is no reason that nature cannot also be given legal rights. 

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How Legal Rights can Protect Nature

What makes the rights of nature movement so powerful is that it places people and nature on a level field. While environmental law takes an anthropocentric perspective, treating nature as property for human exploitation, giving nature rights ensures that its interests will not be overshadowed by corporations’ economic interests or subject to the changing priorities of governments and individuals. For instance, in Ecuador, the first country to enshrine the rights of nature in its constitution in 2008, the Provincial Court of Loja held in 2011 that the Vilcabamba River’s right “to exist, to be maintained and to the regeneration of its vital cycles, structures and functions” was violated by the construction of a road next to it, which involved the dumping of rock and excavation material on riverside land. Despite continued construction of the road, the court required the defendant, the Provincial Government of Loja, to adhere to environmental recommendations made by the Ministry of Environment, including performing rehabilitative and corrective actions like storing the rubbish from the construction elsewhere. This case was the first successful rights of nature case in the world, illustrating how including nature in our moral circle, as a legal person equal to us human beings, leads to greater prioritisation of its interests. 

A rights of nature approach is not only legally enforceable, it also encourages us to “personalise and reframe our relationship with nature” and indigenous peoples. For example, the Yarra River Protection Act, which gave legal rights to Melbourne’s Yarra River in 2017, affirmed the rivers and lands as an integrated living entity central to the history and livelihood of Australia and paid respects to the wisdom of its traditional owners, the Wurundjeri people. By retelling the story of the Yarra River from a bicultural and Earth-centred perspective through law, not only is nature better protected, a pathway for reconciliation with indigenous peoples and nature is also provided.

Addressing Critiques of the Rights of Nature Movement

An oft-cited critique of giving nature rights is its uncertainty and impracticality. Given the sheer size of a river or forest, how do we pinpoint the blame on one household or business? Even if we can identify a defendant, how can we calculate the human cost of environmental degradation, for example the depletion of a rare fish species or the pollution of a river, in dollar terms? In response, the uncertainty of rights of nature may largely be a matter of incipience. As more cases are brought before the court, clearer jurisprudence is likely to emerge. For now, despite the inevitable difficulties in identifying defendants in complex cases with multiple causes of and parties to environmental harm, it is encouraging to see precedent cases like the Vilcabamba River case, in which successful litigation was brought in more contained areas where the damage clearly emanated from one entity.

Another critique is that involving courts necessarily implicates barriers to justice, in particular the extortionate costs required to bring a lawsuit and dependence on fallible human enforcement of legal rights. While these are undoubtedly problems requiring serious scrutiny, these are systemic problems that do not target rights of nature specifically. Additionally, even the threat of a lawsuit might deter companies from environmental degradation.

Where Does That Leave Us?

The rights of nature movement is still in its infancy, and while many questions remain unanswered, it is apparent that giving rights to nature holds great promise. The dynamic applicability of a rights of nature framework in both the Global North and South, from Ecuador to Bangladesh to Australia, demonstrates the potential for any country with an established legal system to adopt this approach. Giving legal personhood to nature humanises our ecosystems as living beings rather than exploitable objects, powerfully generating legal and cultural incentives to treat our Earth with greater respect. Indeed, such a fundamental paradigm shift might be what we need to combat climate change. 

This article comes from the frontline activities of the Ocean Park Conservation Foundation Hong Kong, whose mission it is to advocate, facilitate and participate in effective conservation of Asian wildlife, with an emphasis on Chinese white dolphins and giant pandas. 

Ocean Park Conservation Foundation Hong Kong (OPCFHK) has announced the details of its 2020-21 Conservation Funding Projects, pledging over HK$3.43 million to support 13 new studies. 

The selected projects involve more than 30 species with urgent conservation needs in eight Asian countries and regions, all of which focus on marine conservation and combating illegal trading of threatened species. Hong Kong-led projects include a first-of-its-kind computer program for automated facial recognition of the humphead wrasse, and genetic-based research of dried tokay geckos.

Michael Boos, Foundation Director of OPCFHK, says, “Illegal wildlife trade continues to be one of the most significant threats to biodiversity globally, and this is even happening in Hong Kong at our very own doorstep. In particular, some threatened wildlife species are considered to have edible and medicinal values in the city. Given the urgency of conservation efforts, it is critical that OPCFHK supports research studies which contribute to the effective combat of illegal trading and that also have measurable conservation outcomes.”

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The foundation says that conservation efforts can be misdirected if no solid evidence can be provided about a traded species’ place of origin. A new Hong Kong-led study will be conducted to combat the illegal trading of humphead wrasses. The research proposes developing a computer program for automated facial recognition of the humphead wrasse, which can later be tested in Hong Kong’s local seafood markets and eventually be adopted by local government departments and other countries for illegal trading regulation enforcement.

Another local project proposes genetic-based research to determine the geographic origin of dried tokay geckos sold in traditional Chinese medicine markets, which can improve the current genetic diversity of the species in Asia.

Dr Timothy Bonebrake, says, “Tokay geckos are frequently observed in Hong Kong’s markets, dried flat on sticks and used in soups to prevent lung problems. The vast numbers seen might lead one to believe that tokay geckos are an infinite resource. In reality, reports indicate that millions of tokay geckos are traded every year, to the point where the species was added to Annex II of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) in 2019 to prevent further endangerment. OPCFHK’s funding will help us conduct the research required to fill in this knowledge gap, using a combination of conservation forensics tools and field work to determine the origins of market geckos and how local tokay geckos in Hong Kong are affected by this global trade.”

Finally, a regional study of Okhotsk Sea bowhead whales conducted at The Institute of Ecology and Evolution of the Russian Academy of Sciences will shed light on the endangered species’ seasonal distribution to define a potential ‘area of conflict’ with the wider industry. This is the first systematic survey to study their population, which will make use of satellite tracking to define migratory routes and winter grounds for this remarkable marine mammal.

About the Ocean Park Conservation Foundation

The OPCFHK works to advocate, facilitate and participate in effective conservation of Asian wildlife, with an emphasis on Chinese white dolphins and giant pandas. It achieves this goal through partnerships, fundraising, research and education. Since its inception 25 years ago, the foundation has allocated over HK$90.2 million to fund 514 research projects on cetaceans, giant pandas and many other species.

Find out more about OPCFHK’s conservation research funding at: https://www.opcf.org.hk/en/conservation-research/research-funding/2020-21-projects. 

Featured image supplied by: Ocean Park Conservation Foundation

Wild caught bluefin tuna is one of the most unsustainable seafood dishes in Hong Kong, with the Pacific bluefin tuna listed as vulnerable, Atlantic bluefin tuna listed as endangered and the southern bluefin tuna listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List. So what about farmed bluefin tuna? Is this a more sustainable option? While bluefin tuna farms, mainly located in Australia, the Mediterranean and Japan, might at first glance seem to be an acceptable replacement to the wild-caught alternative, closer examination shows otherwise.

Bluefin tuna is a carnivorous species that sits at the top of the food chain. In aquaculture, it has a high Fish In Fish Out ratio (FIFO). FIFO is an environmental performance benchmark used to measure the efficiency at which the aquaculture converts a weight-equivalent unit of wild fish into a unit of cultured fish. Bluefin tuna has an average FIFO ratio of 15:1. In other words, for every tonne of farmed bluefin tuna, a total of 15 tons of feed is required. By comparison, farmed salmon and trout have a FIFO ratio of 0.82:1, while species in the Cyprinidae family such as grass carp only has a FIFO rate of 0.02:1. In 2015, the average aquaculture FIFO ratio was 0.22:1.

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Bluefin tuna commands one of the most expensive per pound prices on the global seafood market, so it is in the interest of farmers to increase their size. By feeding bluefin tuna a mixture of sardine, sand eel, saury, chub mackerel, Japanese horse mackerel, and cuttlefish, aquaculture farmers can increase the weight of a single fish by 10-20kg. This makes farmed bluefin tuna environmentally inefficient and unsustainable.

In the WWF Seafood Guide, which covers over 70 of the most familiar seafood items in the city, both farmed and wild-caught bluefin tuna fall into the “avoid” category. The guide has three categories: green – recommended; yellow – think twice; red – avoid. The green category indicates well-managed fisheries where seafood is caught or farmed in an ecologically-friendly manner. The yellow category indicated fisheries that are at risk of becoming unsustainable. The red category indicates fisheries that are over-exploited, or seafood that is caught or farmed in an ecologically-unfriendly manner.

Sustainable replacements to bluefin tuna include yellowfin tuna caught with handlines in Indonesia and the Philippines. Handline fishing is highly selective and therefore has a low bycatch rate. Additionally, these yellowfin fisheries have a more solid management framework that prevents fishing during certain seasons, giving fish stocks a chance to recover.

Featured image by: Wikimedia Commons

This article was originally published on WWF-Hong Kong, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org.

Rhino poaching in South Africa fell by 53% in the half of 2020, owing partly to COVID-19 travel restrictions and lockdowns in the country that have hindered poachers and international smuggling rings. 

According to Barbara Creecy, the minister of environment, forestry and fisheries, during the first six months of the year, 166 rhinos were poached in South Africa, compared with 316 in the same period of 2019. Creecy says, “We have been able to arrest the escalation of rhino losses.”

The ministry owes its success to slowing the rate of poaching to a decade of strategies and supply chain disruptions stemming from travel restrictions during the country’s national lockdown from COVID-19. However, the ministry warns that as lockdown restrictions have been gradually eased and game parks reopened, so too has rhino poaching slowly increased. 

From when a lockdown was implemented on March 27 until the end of June, 46 rhinos were killed across the country, according to the ministry. 

South Africa has for years battled rhino poaching. In 2019, poachers killed 594 rhinos and in 2018, 769 rhinos were poached. There is still high demand for their horns in Asia, mostly coming from China and Vietnam, where the horn is used in traditional medicine, an aphrodisiac or a status symbol. It is normally sold in powdered form and is touted as a cure for cancer and other diseases, despite being made of the same substance- keratin- as in human fingernails and hair. 

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The trade of rhino horns may be curbed in Vietnam as the country recently banned the import and trade of wildlife as well as wildlife products, and announced a crackdown on illegal wildlife markets. The country is hoping the ban will reduce the risk of future pandemics such as COVID-19. China also banned the consumption and trade of wildlife in February, however animal parts may still be used in medicine. 

Pangolins have been locally extinct in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province for the last 30 or 40 years, experts say. But now, local conservationists are working to slowly reintroduce these shy, sensitive animals in a world-first effort to reinstate wild populations.

The eight species of pangolins together are considered to be one of the most widely trafficked animals in the world, despite the trade being prohibited under CITES. Due to the trade’s illegality, poachers and smugglers work hard to avoid detection, but authorities still manage to intercept thousands of these trafficked animals and their body parts each year. In 2019 alone, authorities seized more than 97 tons of scales from more than 150,000 African pangolins, according to the African Pangolin Working Group, although this is believed to only represent a small fraction of the trade originating from Africa.

Historically, the pangolin trade has been fueled by traditional Chinese medicine, which values pangolin scales for their medicinal qualities, despite the fact that they only contain keratin, the same substance found in human hair and fingernails. However, China recently banned the trade of pangolins within the country, which may help stop, or at least stall, the global trade of the species. Pangolins are also hunted and traded for their meat, which is considered to be a delicacy in some countries, including many African nations.

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pangolins extinct
A pangolin sticking out its long tongue. Image by Francois Meyer (Source: Mongabay).

The Temminck’s pangolin (Smutsia temminckii), also known as the ground pangolin, has a wide range across Africa, but is considered “ecologically extinct” across KwaZulu-Natal, the easternmost province in South Africa, according to Ray Jansen, an advisory authority on the species for the IUCN. While an “odd pangolin” might reside in some northern parts of the province, he told Mongabay, the population as a whole is not viable.

The loss of the species in the KwaZulu-Natal is mainly due to pangolin poaching and trafficking, although Temminck’s pangolins are also commonly electrocuted by the fences separating parks, nature reserves and private properties.

For the last 10 years, the team at the African Pangolin Working Group (APWG) have been rescuing pangolins from the trade, and rehabilitating them so they can eventually be released back into the wild in South Africa. But it was only in 2019 that the team started reintroducing pangolins into the KwaZulu-Natal province, where they’ve been ecologically extinct.

“They’re all pretty much in a very bad way when they come out of the trade,” said Jansen, who chairs the APWG. “They don’t feed in captivity, so they’re generally quite emaciated and dehydrated and extremely stressed.”

The first stop for these rescued pangolins is Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital, a nonprofit facility that only treats wildlife. In most cases, the pangolins need antibiotics to help ward off illnesses that they picked up while being trafficked, Jansen said. If they survive this process, they’re placed in what he calls a “soft release” program.

“We found that this soft facilitated release is far more successful than simply opening a cage door and letting the animal go,” Jansen said. “We’ve seen it with other wildlife as well. When you transport and transpose other animals like lions and buffaloes and elephants, you first need to put them into a boma [corral] firstly to feed them there for a couple of weeks, get them accustomed to the habitat, the food, the environment, the sights, the sounds. Pangolins are no different.”

During the soft release period, caretakers will take the pangolins for long walks in the reserve to ensure they can find enough ants and termites to eat, then take them back to a secure shelter to sleep.

“We have to go and physically walk behind them for anywhere from four to seven hours every single evening so that they can forage,” Jansen said. “It requires a huge amount of effort and manpower.”

The soft release program may only take days or up to three weeks, depending on the animal’s ability to adapt to its surroundings, Jansen said. When they’re eventually released, caretakers continue to observe them through GPS satellite-based and VHF radio-based tracking tags. They also regularly weigh the pangolins and give them medical checkups.

In 2019, the team rescued 43 pangolins from the trade, and reintroduced seven into the Phinda Private Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal province. Phinda was an ideal release site because of its large size and the “good team on the ground,” Jansen said.

“Out of the seven we’ve released on Phinda, one individual got a very large tick infection and got biliary and died, and another individual … swam across a large river then was taken by a crocodile,” Jansen said. “But these are natural deaths that aren’t related to the trade.”

The other five pangolins are “doing well,” Simon Naylor, manager of the Phinda Private Game Reserve, told Mongabay.

“They’ve found food, they’ve found burrows, and they’ve survived the full 12 months of summer and winter, and they’re still here … and this is a success,” Naylor said. However, he added that the ultimate measure of success would be when the pangolins started to reproduce.

One of the five pangolins is a young male named Rampfy who was picked up on the side of the road near Kruger National Park in 2018, and hand-raised by a number of individuals.

“This little male is quite special,” Naylor said. “No [Temminck’s] pangolin has ever been hand-raised and released back into the wild, and he’s been out in the wild since November and doing very well. I think it just shows that with a lot of efforts, we can successfully hand-raise and release these animals, and give them a second chance.”

There are plans to reintroduce more pangolins into the Phinda Private Game Reserve, Naylor said. In fact, they’re expecting another pangolin to arrive shortly.

“I think this is a very special project, and no one knew how it would turn out,” Naylor said. “They’re very stressed animals when they arrive here, and it’s been a lot of hard work … very late nights, long hours. We’ve put a lot of funding towards it, with the monitoring, especially. But I think for the species, it bodes well — we’ve managed to show that we can successfully reintroduce these animals.”

Featured image by: Francois Meyer for Mongabay

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Elizabeth Claire Alberts , and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org. 


Vietnam has banned the import and trade of wildlife, dead or alive, as well as wildlife products, and announced a crackdown on illegal wildlife markets. The move comes as part of efforts to reduce the risk of future pandemics such as COVID-19, and has been applauded by conservationists.

The country’s prime minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, issued a directive halting the trading of wild species, as well as products like eggs, organs or body parts. It also calls for tougher punishment against people involved in illegal hunting, killing or advertising of wild animals. 

The announcement has been welcomed by conservation groups, who have previously accused the government of being complacent in the fight against the trade of endangered species. In February, 14 conservation organisations in Vietnam sent a joint letter warning the government that ‘new viruses will continue to move from wildlife to people while illegal wildlife trade and wildlife consumptions continue’. This sentiment was echoed by the United Nations Environment Programme and the International Livestock Research Institute, who released a report warning that zoonotic diseases are increasing and will continue to do so without action to protect wildlife and preserve the environment. 

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Vietnam is one of Asia’s biggest consumers of wildlife products, and the wildlife trade is thought to be a billion-dollar industry. The most frequently smuggled animal goods include tiger parts, rhino horn and pangolins. Animals are also bought as pets of status symbols. 

There is also a flourishing online wildlife trade, where images of species are posted on Facebook and YouTube. 

Steven Galster, chairman of the anti-trafficking group Freeland, says, “Vietnam is to be congratulated for recognising that COVID-19 and other pandemics are linked to the wildlife trade. This trade must be banned as a matter of international and public health security.” 

However, some warn that the ban is not far-reaching enough. Nguyen Van Thai, director of Save Vietnam’s Wildlife, says that the directive ‘is insufficient as some uses of wildlife such as medicinal use or wild animals being kept as pets are not covered’. Others warn that enforcement across the country’s borders may pose a challenge. 

The global wildlife trade has come under great scrutiny following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, which originated at a market in Wuhan, China, where animals such as snakes, beavers and badgers were sold. The Chinese government has since banned the wildlife trade and has placed a temporary ban on such markets. 

Featured image by: Wolf Gordon Clifton / Animal People, Inc.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, popularly known as CITES, is a rare animal: an international environmental treaty with teeth. It regulates the global trade in some of the world’s most threatened species, with the power to ban it when needed.

Now, 45 years after it came into force, CITES appears to be having its moment of reckoning as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. The convention is ratified by almost all countries of the world, including the U.S. and China, and is binding. Even the Paris climate agreement is not enforceable.

In March, when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, questions flew thick and fast about the novel coronavirus’s link to the wildlife trade. While conservation groups jumped at the chance to highlight the relationship between pandemics and wildlife exploitation, the CITES Secretariat, responsible for coordinating the work of its parties, appeared to distance itself from the crisis. “Matters regarding zoonotic diseases are outside of CITES’s mandate,” it said in a statement, “and therefore the CITES Secretariat does not have the competence to make comments regarding the recent news on the possible links between human consumption of wild animals and COVID-19.”

This sparked outrage and invited scrutiny. “What the statement actually said is that they don’t care. They don’t care about what is happening in the world; they think it’s none of their business,” said Vera Weber, president of the Switzerland-based NGO Franz Weber Foundation. “And it says they can’t do anything about it, which is not true because trade, be it legal or illegal, is fueling these pandemics.”

Can CITES as it exists today help ward off the next pandemic, many conservationists are wondering. It should be part of the solution, many believe.

“CITES has enjoyed keeping its rather narrow focus,” John Scanlon, who served as CITES secretary-general from 2010 to 2018, told Mongabay. He said that means it doesn’t directly address non-trade issues like climate impacts, invasive species or animal welfare. “It has tended to want to stick to the sustainability issues,” said Scanlon, who now consults for the NGO African Parks.

That narrow focus is a blessing, according to some experts. Protecting threatened species from being decimated by the international wildlife trade, both legal and illegal, is a monumental undertaking. And the multilateral treaty has recorded some hard-won successes, most notably the banning of trade in elephant ivory in 1990. In the decade preceding the ban, over 50,000 African elephants were hunted down every year for their tusks.

However, the ban has had limited success in stifling the illegal ivory trade. CITES relies on national governments to enforce its edicts, and without their consistent and sustained cooperation, many CITES regulations fail to achieve their objectives.

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African grey elephants

Some see a by-the-book reading of its mandate as a failing in the face of the coronavirus disaster. “The secretariat tends to forget that CITES cannot only be characterized as a trade agreement, but it is also part of international environmental law,” Weber said.

Many experts, including Weber, favor expanding the agreement, rather than replacing or sidelining it.

“It seems that CITES, as it stands, has become obsolete. It needs to be renewed. It needs to be modernized. It needs to be taken into the 21st century,” she said. “We can’t go on talking about trading in endangered species, when we have such big biodiversity loss in the world. This loss of biodiversity and loss of habitats are also causing pandemics such as COVID-19.”

Getting countries to agree on enforceable treaties is an arduous process that takes years. The Paris climate accord came on the back of over twenty years of climate talks and at least four years of purposeful negotiations. The urgency created by the pandemic may not generate enough political will to produce a new agreement.

CITES covers around 35,000 species of plants and animals whose survival experts believe may be threatened by international trade. The convention classifies them into three categories or appendices, each subject to increasingly restrictive trade regulations based on the risk that global trade poses to their populations in the wild. Though large, the treaty covers only a fraction of the 8.7 million species of plants and animals on Earth.

The convention does not regulate trade in many of the animals known to pose a health risk to humans.

Horseshoe bats, a family of bats considered to be a potential reservoir for the virus that causes SARS and a possible host species for the novel coronavirus, are not listed in CITES. Neither is the Asian palm civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus), the intermediary species from which the SARS coronavirus may have jumped to humans.

What has made it difficult for groups to get behind calls for change is the gaping hole at the center of the COVID-19 chronicle. We still do not know how the novel coronavirus, called SARS–CoV-2, jumped from animals to humans. This is likely to remain a mystery for months, if not years. It may remain a mystery forever. Even today, no one is quite sure how the Ebola virus slid from wild animals into human populations. Scientists have discounted as baseless the idea that the novel coronavirus was engineered in a lab or accidentally released from a lab.

Currently, most experts believe the spillover happened when someone foraging for food or involved in trading live wild animals came in contact with an animal carrying the SARS-CoV-2 virus or an ancestor of the virus. This animal may have been a bat or an intermediary host. There are suggestions that the virus jumped to humans from pangolins. This has led to more questions for CITES. While it may not regulate trade in horseshoe bats or palm civets, pangolins enjoy the highest level of protection under the convention. Trade in all eight species of these threatened mammals is illegal. These scaly anteaters are considered the most illegally trafficked mammals in the world.

The COVID-19 pandemic has raised questions that go beyond the international illegal wildlife trade. The virus could have entered human communities through legal or illegal trade in wild animals.  Pangolins are found not just in Africa but also in South Asia and Southeast Asia, including in China.  A recent paper noted similarities between the coronavirus infecting humans and one found in Sunda pangolins (Manis javanica), native to Southeast Asia. The virus could have emerged from and been transported by animals captured domestically or transported from other countries.

The uncertainty has allowed some policymakers and agencies to resist calls for change to environmental policies. For others, however, it means they need to cast a broader net.

“Any environmental treaty has to be a living instrument because it needs to keep adapting and responding to threats to the species that the treaty deals with,” said Shruti Suresh, a lawyer with the U.K.-based Environmental Investigation Agency. “The existing CITES framework can be applied to tackle public health concerns associated with wildlife trade, for example, through initiatives to close domestic markets and eliminate demand.”

Another possible approach would be to craft a new agreement to address trade in species that pose a threat to human health. But some experts note that such a treaty could be duplicative of CITES, and that might make the regulatory framework more cumbersome. “[What] we are suggesting is that the CITES treaty essentially be amended to support the regulation of trade in wild animals that affects humans,” said Dan Ashe from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), a U.S.-based NGO. “We have an existing mechanism for enforcement, that seems to us to be an order of magnitude more available as opposed to building a brand new international enforceable agreement.”

But amending CITES may not be enough to address the issues raised by the COVID-19 pandemic, even those related to wildlife exploitation.

Apart from being expanded, there is a pressing need to strengthen CITES and reinforce the architecture of global environmental law in which it is embedded, experts say.

The treaty does not tackle wildlife crime, per se, and does not apply to environmental transgressions that occur within national boundaries. It lays down regulations for the import, export and re-export of certain wildlife and wildlife products, which have to be enforced by the countries that are signatories to the convention. Countries have their own laws that deal with crimes like poaching, illegal logging and illegal fishing.

Domestic crimes fuel the transnational illicit trade in wildlife and wildlife products — everything from live animals and animal parts, to precious timber. Wildlife trafficking is one of the most lucrative illegal trades in the world, rivaling in value the trade in drugs, weapons, and human traffic.  But it is often not treated as a serious crime by many countries.

Because of the complexity of the global trade in wildlife, CITES collaborates with organizations like INTERPOL, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the World Bank, and the World Customs Organization through the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime.

“At the moment we have this sort of mishmash system,” Scanlon said. “the implications of these wildlife crimes are so great, we need to focus the international community’s attention on it, and the attention of the criminal justice system on it.”

Scanlon said he favored raising the profile of wildlife crimes by adding a protocol under the U. N. Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC), which currently focuses primarily on human trafficking and the illegal arms trade. Suresh agreed that this would be a positive step. “It would shine a spotlight on wildlife crime as organized crime, not just something that is about legal and illegal trade, which is the lens that CITES tends to use.” It could ensure better coordination and support from enforcement agencies in countries, she said.

The responsibility to bring about change, however, will ultimately rest with the nations that are party to these agreements. There is a growing sense that difficult decisions need to be made and implemented soon, and CITES may be a place to start.

“The decision-making authorities under the CITES are the world governments that have signed up to it. If we want this issue to be front and center and addressed we don’t have to wait for the CITES secretariat,” Suresh said. “The parties need to be bringing this issue front and center [at] the next CITES meeting whether that’s EU, Asian states, African states or China itself.”

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Malavika Vyawahare, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org. 

In early June, it was widely reported that the Chinese government had banned pangolin scales in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), and that all pangolin species now had the highest level of protection within China. This news grabbed headlines around the world, and conservationists hailed the move as a positive step toward halting the illegal pangolin trade. But some experts say this celebration was premature.

The team at the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) recently obtained a copy of China’s 2020 pharmacopoeia, a reference book for TCM practitioners, and found that while pangolin scales had been removed from the list of raw ingredients, pangolin scales were still listed as a key ingredient in various patent medicines.

“We were not surprised to learn that pangolin scales remained in the 2020 pharmacopoeia,” Chris Hamley, senior pangolin campaigner at EIA, told Mongabay. “In fact we had warned soon after the reports started to appear in the international media on 9 June that China’s widely publicized pangolin protections might not mean a total ban on their use in traditional Chinese medicine. This has happened before with leopard bone and bear bile — both were removed as a key ingredient but maintained as ingredients in patent medicine formulations.”

EIA identified eight medicines in the 2020 pharmacopoeia that contain pangolin scales, including Zaizao Wan, a pill said to aid blood circulation, and Awei Huapi Gao, a medicine used to treat abdominal pain. While patent medicines are processed, ready-made products, Hamley said that licensed hospitals and pharmaceutical companies can legally obtain pangolin scales to produce and sell these medicines.

There are also 72 additional TCM products containing pangolin scales that aren’t listed in the 2020 pharmacopoeia, but that can still be legally sold within China, Hamley said.

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pangolin trade
A page from China’s 2020 pharmacopoeia that shows a list of approved ingredients for the patent medicine, Awei Huapi Gao. The characters circled read “pangolin.” Image by EIA.

Hamley says the trade may be continuing based on an exemption in Article 27 of China’s Wildlife Protection Law, which specifies that protected wildlife can be sold, purchased and utilized for scientific research, captive breeding, public exhibition or performances, heritage conservation, and other special purposes.

“There are unlikely to be any major changes in demand for pangolin scales,” Hamley said. “The drivers of demand associated with the use of pangolin scales in TCM in China still remain. With licenced companies and hospitals still able to legally produce TCM medicines containing pangolin scales based on formulae in the pharmacopoeia and other national lists, there will continue to be demand for raw pangolin scales from the TCM industry.”

EIA isn’t the only organization to point out the contradictory nature of China’s policy on pangolin scales. TRAFFIC, an NGO that monitors the illegal trade of wild animals and plants, also said pangolin scales were still being promoted as medicinal ingredients.

“The situation is not clear-cut — medicinal use of pangolins is no longer endorsed by the main text of the TCM pharmacopoeia, but pangolin scales are still included in some of the prescriptions listed in the Annex of the printed publication,” TRAFFIC wrote in a tweet to BBC News after it published an article on China’s removal of pangolins from TCM.

There are also concerns about the current government-held stockpiles of pangolin scales, which can be legally used at approximately 700 licensed hospitals and to produce about 70 patented medicines, according to TRAFFIC. Between 2008 and 2015, about 26.6 tons of pangolin scales were used each year. However, it’s not known how many scales are currently in these stockpiles, or the exact source of these stockpiles, and conservationists are worried that pangolin scales will be illegally laundered into these stockpiles if the system isn’t properly managed.

“[A]t the very least, every province needs to have a transparent and standardized system to manage pangolin stockpiles to prevent any laundering of illegally sourced pangolin parts into legal channels,” Richard Thomas of TRAFFIC told Mongabay. “As we have seen in recent years, a number of very large-scale pangolin seizures have been made by Chinese customs, so clearly there is ongoing illegal supply of pangolin products that needs to be shut down. There’s a clear need for wildlife protection management departments to co-operate with the traditional Chinese medicine sector to eliminate potential illegal and unsustainable use of pangolin products.”

The eight species of pangolins are the most widely trafficked animal in the world, with more than a million of these animals poached and illegally traded since the year 2000. In 2016, CITES, an international treaty that protects endangered plants and animals, uplisted pangolins to Appendix I, which bans all international trade. However, CITES regulations do not apply to any domestic trade of the species.

Hamley said the illegal trade of pangolin scales has not slowed down in recent weeks, despite the apparent removal of pangolin scales from pharmacopoeia.

“EIA is currently monitoring the trans-national trafficking and trade of pangolin scales by criminal networks, and we can confirm that large, multiple ton shipments of pangolin scales continue to be trafficked from Africa to southeast Asia for onward shipment into China,” Hamley said. “COVID-19 has had some logistical consequences that have slowed down wildlife trafficking activity, but traffickers in Africa continue to source pangolin scales in significant quantities for export to Asia.”

UPDATE 06/28/2020: In response to this article, a spokesperson for China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF) stated that there is currently no legal procedure to stop the production of patent medicines, which are owned and protected by various companies, and that the Chinese government has done its best to remove pangolins from TCM.

Featured image by: USAID Asia 

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Elizabeth Claire Alberts, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org. 


COVID-19 has disrupted normality across the globe, bringing societies and economies to a grinding halt and throwing all aspects of life into uncertainty. The havoc it has the potential to wreak on the natural world, too, should not be underestimated. With 50 million jobs in the tourism sector expected to be lost in 2020 as a result of the pandemic, the ecotourism industry is also at the mercy of the COVID-19 virus. 

The social distancing and quarantining measures necessary to flatten the curve of COVID-19 mean that ecotourism- the sustainable capitalisation of the natural world, usually in the form of guided tours of protected habitats- is infeasible for the time being. Repercussions are already being felt across world heritage sites, such as the Aldabra coral atoll in the Seychelles, which relies exclusively on income from tourism to fund monitoring of the corals. Similar concerns have been expressed regarding the Great Barrier Reef, the West Norwegian Fjords, and the Galápagos Islands.

Meanwhile, the Kenyan Wildlife Conservancies Association reports that important tourist attractions on the country’s Masai Mara plains, most notably the annual wildebeest migration safaris, have been cancelled, resulting in a vastly whittled-down workforce due to lack of income. In an average year, Kenya welcomes approximately 1.5 million tourists per year, 70-80% of which are visitors to national parks, generating $1.6 billion in annual revenues. According to Kaddu Sebunya, leader of the African Wildlife Foundation, approximately three million conservation-related jobs have been lost in Kenya due to the virus as of late May 2020. This illustrates how damaging the prospect of months of inactivity could be in countries such as Kenya where conservation is a vital source of employment and income.  

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The virus could also unravel years of hard-fought progress in the conservation of the mountain gorilla. Across two habitats- the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda- the total number of gorillas stands at 1063 as of 2018; this is a vast improvement from the total during the early 1980s, approximately 350. Mountain gorilla conservation has been a long slog since their discovery in 1902; during much of the twentieth century, their populations have suffered poaching, disease and destruction of habitats. An earnest drive for their conservation was only initiated in the late 1970s, with the foundation of the Mountain Gorilla Project in 1979. However, the use of traps by poachers and the tourist demand for body-part souvenirs meant numbers continued to fall. Meanwhile, Dian Fossey, who dedicated her life to gorilla conservation, was murdered in Rwanda in 1985. Thankfully, these setbacks did not damage conservation efforts irreparably, and numbers began to rise following Fossey’s death. The International Gorilla Conservation Programme was founded in 1991, and as of November 2018, mountain gorillas are no longer classed as critically endangered.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 could reverse this progress. The gorillas share 98% of their DNA with humans, meaning they are at significant risk of catching the virus if extensive precautions are not taken. Introducing the virus into mountain gorilla populations could have ‘moderate-to-severe outcomes’, according to Thomas R. Gillespie and Fabian H. Leendertz of Nature.

The economic consequences of the suspension of gorilla-related ecotourism, however, are just as likely to result in a decline in populations as COVID-19 itself. Ensuring that the communities local to gorilla habitats profit from ecotourism is a key preventative measure against poaching, to which locals often have no option but to turn if other means of income cease. At approximately US$1500 per person for a guided viewing of Rwandan mountain gorillas, the heavy reliance on ecotourism for gorilla conservation is clear. 

The problem is not limited to mountain gorilla conservation. Patrick Greenfield and Peter Muiruri, writing in the Guardian, warn that the pandemic could cause ‘a surge in poaching, illegal fishing and deforestation in life-sustaining ecosystems’. In April, Cambodia saw the pandemic diminish local tourist industries, with three giant ibis, a critically endangered species, were killed for their meat in an incident most likely related to the rapid decline of conservation efforts as a result of the virus. 

More optimistic are the signs that the illegal wildlife trade has been impeded by travel curbs brought about by the pandemic. However, experts fear a rise in the demand for bushmeat, which would likely result in an increase in poaching; in March, the black rhino population in Botswana’s Okavango Delta was evacuated after at least six were killed by poachers. Additionally, the new lack of opportunities to profit from ecotourism in some areas may mean that turning to farming for income could become more common, increasing the likelihood of animals being killed for invading farmland

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the ecotourism industry, a vital source of funding for conservation work, to a standstill. In turn, this could bring about an increase in poaching, as communities located in the heart of natural habitats lose ecotourism-generated income. If the disease is not properly managed, particularly among at-risk populations such as those of the mountain gorilla, progress in the conservation of endangered species and world heritage sites that has taken years to achieve may have been in vain. 

To maintain conservation efforts and ensure post-recovery ecotourism, governments should evaluate implementing a voluntary public conservation programme aimed at keeping young members of the workforce employed. Such a program would be similar in ideal to the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) programme put in place in the US following the Great Depression. A contemporary programme would employ young people who are out of work due to the recession. Volunteers would be trained for specific roles, and work on a temporary basis in jobs pertaining to conservation, sustainable development and resource management. In exchange, governments could fund worker housing, clothing and food, as well as providing a modest stipend. Such a programme would have the potential to significantly raise and improve physical and mental health for a beaten down generation, grow young workers’ skill sets and preparedness for future careers and increase public awareness of and attention towards conservation efforts and the preservation of natural resources.

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