Last September, a group of conservationists called the police as soon as they found thousands of live birds being housed in a farm near Beijing, reported Natasha Daly of National Geographic, an American pay television network and flagship channel. Police seized and released about 10,000 birds, which were caught illegally with traps. The birds were meant for restaurants and markets in Southern China.
The deadly spread of the coronavirus, which originated from the Hunan market in Wuhan, shed light on China’s live wild animal trade. We can’t rule out that wildlife animal trade is occurring in other parts of the world. It is not merely confined to poaching elephants and rhinos for their ivory and horn, as they are not the only species threatened by this practice, wrote Rebecca Drury of Phys.org, a news and articles website on science and technology.
Key Statistics on Wildlife Trade and Consumption
According to the World WISE (Wildlife Seizures) database, nearly 7,000 species of mammals, reptiles, corals, birds, and fish have been seized, as cited by the United Nations Office On Drugs and Crime (UNODC), a United Nations office established in 1997. In UNODC’s World Wildlife Crime Report 2016, mammals (30%) comprised the largest share of taxonomic class among total aggregated seizures in World WISE by region (1999-2015). Reptiles came at second with 28% followed by corals (17%), and other species (10%). Birds and boney fish accounted for 9% and 6% respectively.
Globally, China is one of the largest consumers of wild animals for food and traditional medicine, explained Alex T. Chow, Peter K. Yip, and Szeman Cheung in their 2014 journal article titled “Wildlife Markets In South China” via online research portal Research Gate. The study was conducted in seven cities in Guangdong and Guangxi provinces. The researchers found that 97 animal species were sold from more than 7,000 individuals. In terms of quantity, the most frequently used animal groups were reptiles (51%), birds (21%), and mammals (10%). Additionally, 23% of the reported species were threatened, including one critically endangered species and 12 endangered species.
Nineteen species that are recognized by the Convention On International Trade In Endangered Species (CITES) were also found. The authors found that animals originated from South China, Indochina, and Southeast Asia. Guangzhou and Hong Kong are the only wildlife markets within South China. In fact, a large volume of illegal trade is also taking place in secondary cities in South China.
Li Zhang and Feng Yin conducted an attitudinal survey on wildlife consumption and conservation awareness in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Kunming, and Nanning, as written in their 2014 research “Wildlife Consumption and Conservation Awareness in China: A Long Way to Go,” via Research Gate. They compared the results they got from 2004 to 2012 results. Zhang and Yin interviewed 205 individuals in Beijing, 211 in Shanghai, 215 in Guangzhou, 222 in Kunming, 212 in Nanning, totaling 1,065 individuals.
Of these respondents, 561 or 52.7% agreed that wildlife should not be consumed, showing an increase from the 2004 survey result of 42.7%. Some 371 people or 34.8% agreed that wildlife could be used with certain conditions, a decline from a result in 2004 (42.8%). Zhang and Yin also found that the proportion of respondents who had consumed wildlife declined from 31.3% to 29.6%. However, there was no significant reduction of wildlife consumption in China.
The Reality of the Wildlife Trade Market In China
China imposed a ban on its wild animal trade on January 26 until the crisis is over. Images of sick, suffering animals in markets and bats boiled alive in bowls of soup have appeared in media, sparking global outrage and cementing the image that eating wild animals is a “megascale phenomenon” in the country.
Assistant professor of sociology and behavioral sciences at the City University of Hong Kong Rebecca Wong argued in her 2019 book about China’s illegal wildlife trade that wildlife consumption “is a common phenomenon in mainland China.” But that doesn’t mean people should stereotype the Chinese since there are complex motivations involved like peer pressure, societal pressure, and status. Basing it from Zhang and Yin’s research, 83% of people in Guangzhou have not consumed wildlife in the previous year, followed by Shanghai (14%) and Beijing (5%), cited Daly.
Consuming wild animals is a cultural outlier for many Chinese. State-controlled media outlets like China Daily published editorials condemning the practice and calling for a permanent wildlife trade ban. These are amplified by thousands of Chinese citizens on state-censored social media platforms like Weibo, arguing that the government seems to let the “momentum build.” Sadly, the scale of China’s live animal trade is unclear. The number of live wildlife markets is unknown too, but there could be hundreds of them.
A Temporary Ban Is not Enough
Echoing the calls of experts on condemning the damaging impact of wildlife trade on biodiversity and the spread of disease, secretary-general of the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF) Jinfeng Zhou argued that the ban failed to address the root cause of the coronavirus outbreak, reported Phoebe Watson and Michael Standaert via British newspaper The Guardian.
Zhou told the outlet, “This temporary ban is not enough. The trade should be banned indefinitely, at least until new rules are introduced.” He added that China had similar diseases due to illegal wildlife trafficking. These diseases will emerge if China doesn’t ban the practice. China has a wildlife protection law that was put into force in 1988, but the list of protected wild animals has not been updated for 30 years. Unfortunately, the authorities do little to enforce the law, according to critics.
Zhou stated, “The announcement [on Sunday] lacked clear regulations on management, control, and punishment.” He emphasized that a set of responsibilities must be in place to help officials control the trade. Before the Hunan seafood market closed on January 1, it had 30 species of animals, including civets, golden cicadas, wolf pups, etc.
The animals in wildlife markets are often confined to filthy conditions, meaning they are left to sit on their own droppings. These animals incubate diseases, infecting humans in the process. Similar markets are found across China and have been the source of diseases in the past. Dr. Christian Walzer, the chief global veterinarian for the Wildlife Conservation Society, noted that the temporary ban was China’s first step in making wildlife trade illegal. However, the ban will not have an effect on curbing the spread of the coronavirus, reminded professor James Wood, head of veterinary medicine at the University of Cambridge.
Nevertheless, China should be lauded for taking a bold move to ban its wildlife trade, and we should encourage the country to keep it in place permanently, said Steven Galster, founder of the anti-wildlife-trafficking group Freeland. He added, “A sustained ban will save human lives and contribute to a recovery of wildlife populations worldwide.”
There should be more updated studies about China’s wildlife trade to shed light on it. People have seen distressing videos and images of animals being abused and consumed and it’s time for China to end this cruel practice once and for all.