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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.



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. 

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.

Pangolin scales have been removed from a 2020 listing of ingredients approved for use in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). The move has been applauded by animal protection groups, who say that it will help curb trade of the pangolin, the most trafficked animal in the world. 

Reported by China’s Health Times newspaper, the news comes after the country’s State Forestry and Grassland Administration (SFGA) raised the protected status of pangolins to the highest level earlier this month with immediate effect.

Zhou Jinfeng, secretary general of the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation, says, “I am very encouraged. Our continuous efforts for several years have not been in vain. But we still have a long way to go. We need to be vigilant about so-called ‘captive breeding’ and medicinal research because some wrong findings could lead to the wrong policy decisions.”

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The trade of all eight species of pangolin are protected under international law and three of the four of these species are native to Asia, which are included on the red list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature as endangered species, including the functionally extinct Chinese pangolin.  

In February, the China’s National People’s Congress enforced a ban on the consumption of meat from wild animals, although clarification as to what wildlife will still be allowed for use in TCM and the fur and leather industries is expected once China finalises the revisions to its wildlife protection law. 

Although the SFGA currently permits TCM pharmaceutical companies to use parts from previous stockpiles or so called, poorly regulated ‘farmed’ wildlife, this practice is shown to enable the trafficking of animals. 

Up to 200 000 pangolins are consumed each year in Asia for their scales and meat. More than 130 tons of scales and live and dead animals were seized in cross-border trafficking busts in 2019, which is estimated to represent up to 400 000 animals

Pangolin meat is eaten by China’s elite in the hope of reaping health or sexual benefits, even though early TCM texts warn against eating the animals.

Since 2015, more than 14 000 whole pangolins have been seized at border crossings in Asia, with 95% of those in shipments of 21 animals or more. 99% of all whole pangolin seizures have occurred in Asia, with 24% of those at China’s borders, followed by Vietnam and India. Most whole pangolins are trafficked from Laos, Thailand and India. 

Amanda Shaver, a wildlife crime analyst with C4ADS, says, “There has been a significant drop in reporting on pangolin seizures since December 2019. This is most likely due to the increased media focus and coverage on COVID-19, but our databases have not recorded a single seizure of whole pangolin in Asia in 2020.”

Regarding seizures of pangolin scales, in the past five years, 32% have been at mainland China’s border, although Hong Kong accounted for 17%. C4ADS says that the top sources for scales are Nigeria (25%), Malaysia (17%) and Indonesia (12%). 

Featured image by: A. J. T. Johnsingh, WWF-India and NCF 

The government in China is offering buyouts for animals on wildlife farms, and to help farmers change their agricultural practices, in an effort to reduce the consumption of wild animals. This step could have big implications for the management of wildlife in China in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, experts say.

The novel coronavirus, which has affected more than 82,000 people in China and nearly 5 million people worldwide, is believed to have originated from a wet market selling wildlife in Wuhan, China. On Feb. 24, the Chinese government responded by banning the trade and consumption of wild animals, and on April 9, it released a draft list of animals that could be legally farmed for food and clothing. The majority of listed species were domesticated animals like pigs, cattle and sheep, although it had a separate category for “special livestock” such as reindeer, alpacas and emus that could be farmed for food, and minks, Arctic foxes and raccoon dogs that could be farmed for fur.

Some wild animals may continue to be legally farmed, but the Chinese government will offer payment to farmers of at least 14 wild species , including king ratsnakes (Elaphe carinata), bamboo rats (Rhizomyini spp.), Asian palm civet cats (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus), Chinese muntjac deer (Muntiacus spp.), and Chinese bamboo partridges (Bambusicola thoracicus). The highest level of compensation is allotted for the Chinese muntjac deer — 2,457 yuan ($346) per individual —  while each Chinese bamboo partridge will be bought for 57 yuan ($8).

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china buyouts wildlife farmers
A caged civet cat (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

While this buyout agreement was initially presented to farmers in Hunan and Jiangxi provinces, where the majority of wildlife farming takes place, farmers in other provinces, including Guangdong, Yunnan and Guangxi, are being offered similar deals, according to Steve Blake, China’s chief representative at WildAid.

“There are several thousand wildlife breeding operations in each province, especially in some of the less economically developed provinces in the northeast and southern China,” Blake told Mongabay. “These operations are obviously on varying scales and for different uses, but the numbers are pretty staggering. The industry is valued at tens of billions of dollars annually. The fact that China is moving so quickly to clean up such a vast and complicated industry is really astounding.”

The buyouts aren’t necessarily compulsory, but wildlife farmers will face obligations, according to Peter Li, China policy specialist of the Humane Society International (HSI).

“Buyout is a way for the breeders to exit the farming which was encouraged by the government,” Li told Mongabay in an email. “If the farmers do not want to accept the buyout arrangements, they are completely free to stop the farming operation by themselves. However, according to the buyout plan, the farmers cannot farm these animals for food any more.”

More species may be added to the buyout plan, which is only in draft form right now, Blake said.

“This first list of 14 species is the first batch of species to be listed for compensation, probably because they are more commonly bred,” he said. “Since it’s listed as ‘the first batch,’ then there should be more to follow.”

Some farmers will lose their livelihoods, but they will receive government assistance to help them transition to growing vegetables, fruits, teas, or herbs for traditional Chinese medicine, or to even farm other animal species like pigs and chickens.

“Many of these farmers were operating these breeding facilities as local poverty alleviation projects, and so this transition for them into other production is a continuance of these poverty alleviation projects,” Blake said. “These are ongoing and not just a one-time deal. But again, this definitely varies by location, county by county.”

Once the animals are purchased by the government, they face one of three fates, according to HSI. In certain circumstances, they will be released back into the wild, but most animals will be allotted to industries such as zoos and research facilities, or simply culled — and this has animal welfare advocates concerned.

“Culling programs in China and other countries in Asia can also involve truly barbaric methods such as live burial, and so we really hope to see the Chinese authorities mandating against such cruelty,” Li said in a statement. “The wild animal breeding farms and factories facing closure and transition must not sacrifice animal welfare in an effort to implement the new changes.”

There is also a big loophole in the buyout plan: farmers will be able to continue farming wild animals for traditional Chinese medicine, the fur industry or entertainment purposes. In the province of Guangxi, snake farmers, with the help of the government, are already repurposing their animals for the medicine and beauty industries, which will prevent them from having to shut down their farms, according to one news source.

While the buyout plan leaves room for improvement, both Li and Blake say they believe it can help lead China away from wildlife consumption, and promote better management of wildlife in the country.

“By subsidising wildlife breeders to transition to alternative livelihoods, these provinces are demonstrating global leadership on this issue, which other provinces and countries must now follow,” Li said. “Chinese farmers not only have an opportunity to leave a trade that poses a direct threat to human health — something that can no longer be tolerated in light of COVID — but also to transition to more humane and sustainable livelihoods such as growing plant foods popular in Chinese cuisine.”

“These new regulations provide much needed clarity on what is permissible and improvements to the permitting process,” Blake said. “There has also been notable concern throughout society here for the breeders affected by this, so this compensation scheme is also very important to help them transition industries rather than revert to trying to sell these products illegally.

“The amount of attention and resolve that the government, media, and society in China have paid to the wildlife consumption issue in the wake of this pandemic is unprecedented,” Blake added. “There’s not only much improved policy measures resulting from this, but also I think public perceptions on the need to end some of this risky wildlife consumption is going to be long-lasting.”

Featured image by: KL Wong

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.

A positive side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic- besides reduced emissions– is the focus and response to the illegal wildlife trade, especially in China, which has announced a permanent ban on the trade and consumption of wild animals, including in wet markets, like the ones at the centre of the outbreak in Wuhan. International conservationists greeted this act as a vital step, but what do we have to be aware of now?

Wildlife Industry in China

For centuries, the cultural roots associated with consuming wild animals have run deep in China. They are used in multiple industries, ranging from food to traditional Chinese medicine, and from fur production to research in laboratories. 

The wildlife-eating culture can be found particularly in the southern part of China. According to China Dialogue, some residents of Guangdong province in South China like to drink a bowl of piping hot snake soup for breakfast to ward off the cold in winter. Similarly, Cantonese people believe that snake meat can treat illness. Over the past thirty years, the consumption of exotic species such as pangolins, bears and migratory birds has become a status symbol

Aside from meat, wildlife is used in Chinese medicine to treat human ailments. For instance, some people believe that pangolin scales can encourage breast-feeding for lactating mothers, improve poor circulation, cure arthritis and cancer, and even boost male vitality, despite a lack of scientific evidence of their medicinal merit. 

There is also a demand for fur products which is satisfied through the illegal wildlife trade. According to International Fur Federation data, retail sales of fur in China are worth about US$17 billion per year. China produces the most profitable wild animal furs using mink, fox and raccoon, among others.

The wildlife industry feeds a lot of Chinese families. Wildlife farming is a crucial source of income for some developing places like Guangxi and Guizhou. A government-sponsored report released by The Chinese Academy of Engineering in 2017 revealed that the wildlife sector is valued at RMB 520 billion, approximately US $74 billion, employing at least 14 million people. 

Why Wildlife Trade is Harmful

This lucrative industry, however, has resulted in environmental problems such as threats to local ecosystems and biodiversity loss. Not only do species suffer from inhumane practices and possible extinction, the illegal wildlife trade poses threats to public health. 

While we still need time to unravel the timeline and initial cause of the COVID-19 epidemic, some researchers believe that the virus jumped from a market animal to humans, then infected more people through mutation. At the time of going to print, the disease has infected nearly 2 million people and caused more than 100 000 deaths globally.

China’s Ban on Wildlife Trade

In late February, the Standing Committee of the 13th National People’s Congress (NPC) announced its fast-tracked decision to comprehensively prohibit illegal trade, eliminate the bad habits of wild animal consumption and protect people’s health and safety, as part of efforts to curb the coronavirus outbreak.

According to China Daily, the prohibition included the hunting, trading, transport and consumption of wildlife, which included wildlife protected by the law and other non-aquatic animals of ecological, scientific and social value. 

Since the virus hit, about 20 000 wildlife farms have been closed down in China or put under quarantine.

Possible Challenges and Loopholes

While international conservationists have greeted this decision as ‘a big step in the right direction’, some experts have warned against a possible loophole of the law.

China’s decision does not restrict fur trade, medicine or research, according to an analysis by the Wildlife Conservation Society. This could create a potential loophole for traffickers to exploit non-food exemptions in wildlife animal trade. Wildlife campaigner Aron White commented that there was a risk of wildlife being sold for medicine, and then trafficked for food.

Daniel Challender, a researcher from the University of Oxford, who studies the pangolin trade, said the decision appears to exempt the breeding of pangolins for traditional Chinese medicinal purposes. 

Zhou Ke, a professor on environmental and resources law at Renmin University, told China Central Television that the guiding principles in amending the law on protecting wildlife need a change, and that public health safety ought to be written into the law.

The new ban, however, does not make it clear how monitoring will be undertaken or the penalties for inadequate protection of exotic animals.

Individual Action to Protect Wildlife

Aside from this law, mass education on wildlife protection is also required to cease the consumption and trade, whether for meat eating, medicinal treatment or fur. The entire world is now facing public health risks, and yet, it is hard to mitigate or solve epidemic issues. Comprehensive education to stigmatise wildlife consumption is one of the few ways to influence people who live with deep-rooted cultural beliefs.

Additionally, a simple action that consumers can make is to stop purchasing wildlife animals for food, health treatment or luxury fashion.

Featured image by: Dan Bennett

Read Earth.Org’s previous post on this topic, “UN Biodiversity Chief Calls for a Permanent Ban on Wildlife Markets”.

A study published in the journal Science found that at least one in five vertebrate species- animals with a backbone- are bought and sold on the global wildlife trade market. A team of researchers, led by Brett Scheffers from the University of Florida and Brunno Oliveira from Auburn University at Montgomery, discovered that this is 40% to 60% higher than previously suggested.

The team examined nearly 32 000 bird, mammal, amphibian, and reptile species using data from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List for the research.

They found that 5,579 of the species studied- 18% of the total- are currently being traded through the global wildlife trade. 

Analysing the data, the researchers predict that more than 3,000 of the species they studied which are not currently traded could be at risk in the future, due to their similarities with animals already involved in the market. 30% of all mammals, amphibians, reptiles, birds, among them various finches and weavers, are likely to be traded. Dozens of types of horseshoe bats and beaked toads are also at the risk of being trafficked. The team suggests that nearly 9,000 species could face extinction due to the trade.

Earlier this year, Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report on extinction rates found that about one million species of animals and plants face extinction- many within decades- because of human activities including hunting and wildlife trade.

You might also like: China Bans Wildlife Trade: Will it Work?

The African grey parrot is one of the most traded birds globally.

Another study by World Animal Protection — a non-profit organisation — reveals that 2.7 million animals belong to ten vulnerable species in Africa were legally traded between 2011 and 2015. Most are being captured from the wild and bred in commercial farms to be traded for their skin and to be sold as pets. The Nile crocodile, the cape fur seal, Hartmann’s mountain zebra, the African elephant, the common hippopotamus, the ball python, the African grey parrot, the emperor scorpion, the leopard tortoise, and the savannah monitor lizard are the species most prone to trafficking in the continent.

The report sheds light on immense suffering these species face at the hands of humans: the initial traumatic capture, poor conditions in captivity, slaughter, and poor treatment when sold as exotic pets.

“These are wild animals — not factory-produced goods. This cruel industry hurts wild animals and can damage Africa’s biodiversity with devastating long-term impacts on livelihoods and economies too,” says Dr. Neil D’Cruze, global wildlife advisor at World Animal Protection. “How did we get to the point where animals are exported and greedily exploited for our personal pleasure? Does the life of an animal mean nothing at all?”

Past studies have suggested that more than 25% of animals on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list are not protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) — the primary international framework for preventing species extinction due to international wildlife trade. 

In order to save millions of species from the trade, world governments need to start using the IUCN red list as a guide to protecting threatened species within their borders. The governments which are already part of Cites can also advocate that IUCN red list species be quickly incorporated into the framework. 

Pangolins are the world’s most trafficked mammals, but they remain relatively unknown; for most, the thought of wildlife crime instead brings to mind ivory and rhino horns. 

An animal ranging from the size of a common house cat to a medium-sized dog, but covered in hundreds of scales and found only in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, their defence of rolling up into a ball of hardy scales is aptly designed for protection against their natural predators- big cats. But this defence mechanism is far from a deterrent for humans. All eight species of pangolins are at risk of extinction, driven by the thriving illegal trade of its scales and meat used in traditional Asian medicine and dishes.

The illegal wildlife trade has popular trafficking routes that span across the globe, many of which use Hong Kong as an entry point into China. In the four-year period between 2013-2017, the Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department found over 43 metric tonnes of pangolin scales and carcasses. The seizure is estimated to represent 96,330 pangolins at an estimated market value of HK$93.9 million.

All pangolin species have been legally protected by an international agreement between governments in 2016 as part of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), aiming to ensure the trade of the animal doesn’t threaten its survival.

Despite the ban, the latest seizure in January 2019 by the Hong Kong authorities was record high with over eight tonnes of pangolin scales and two tonnes of elephant tusks discovered in the same shipping container, with an estimated combined market value of about HK$62 million.

Why are pangolins trafficked?

Associate Professor at Hong Kong University (HKU) Amanda Whitfort explains that all eight species of pangolin are in high demand for traditional Chinese medicine in China. “Hong Kong is the fifth busiest container port in the world and only about 1% of our containers are inspected. Given the low risk of detection it is not surprising that we are used by traffickers seeking an easy gateway to China.”

Currently, wildlife trafficking offences are listed under legislation aimed to protect endangered species of animals and plants in Hong Kong: Cap.586. However, many have pushed for it to be now listed as under the Organised and Serious Crime Ordinance (OSCO). Whitfort says that this legislation change would allow investigators to use more coercive powers when investigating wildlife crime operations.

Alexandra Andersson, founder of the conservation group Hong Kong for Pangolins, also stresses the importance of listing wildlife offences under OSCO, saying that the Hong Kong government needs to “increase associated penalties, close various loopholes in the law, and work with forensic scientists to develop tools to detect laundering.”

In traditional Chinese medicine, some practitioners prescribe pangolin scales to cure ailments from rheumatism, soreness and itchiness to cancer and impotence. However, activists like Andersson argue that scales are proven to be made of keratin, the substance of human fingernails.

In 2008 a global NGO focused on illegal wildlife trade, TRAFFIC, found that pangolin scale alternatives include Wang Bu Lui Xing (Vaccaraie semen) and dried seeds of cowherb (Vaccaria segetalis). Within the study it was found that the medicinal effects of both alternatives were classed as being equally as effective as pangolin scales.

Whitfort says that many traditional Chinese medicine practitioners publicly support the use of alternatives to endangered species, though it is evident that pangolin products are still in high demand both for its scales and its meat. “No species should go extinct for traditional Chinese medicine,” says Whitfort.

pangolin: most trafficked mammal in the world
Hong Kong customs seize a large shipment of Pangolin Scales transiting via the port city destined to the Chinese market. By Alex Hofford for WildAid

Alarmingly, there is a substantial lack of both knowledge and awareness regarding the pangolin and its legality. A survey of 1000 Hong Kong residents completed by Hong Kong for Pangolins, the Humane Society International and HKU found that 27.1% of the residents surveyed did not know if it was legal to consume pangolin meat or believed it was legal (it is illegal), and nearly half of those surveyed were confused about the legality of the pangolin scale consumption.

In a separate study WildAid also discovered that in China pangolin meat was largely consumed because it is a “expensive status symbol” and an “exotic wild animal”, even though 74% of respondents believed consuming pangolin meat is illegal.

The steep decline in global pangolin numbers has led to some scientists advocating for the captive breeding of pangolins, but studies shows they are not suited to living in captivity, with most wild individuals dying within 200 days. The Kadoorie Farm & Botanic Garden (KFBG) in Hong Kong undertakes species conservation and ecosystem restoration, in doing so they cared for a small number of pangolins before successfully releasing them back into the wild in Hong Kong.

KFBG believes that Hong Kong is in a position to play a critical role in the conservation of pangolins globally saying “the role our territory plays as a smuggling route used to funnel globally poached pangolin products to the main consumers is significant. Clamping down on illegal pangolin smuggling in Hong Kong could have a global scale effect.”

Pressure to curb illegal wildlife trade  is growing fast. Academics and activists alike say that Hong Kong’s wildlife offences need to be moved from Cap.586 to OSCO if legislation and enforcement mechanisms are to be made more effective in combating  illegal pangolin trade.

“Eventually we will have the correct laws,” Whitfort says. “Unfortunately, for some species, those laws will come too late.”

Featured photo by sk8mama/ Flickr (Licence)

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