Overexploitation is a major threat to biodiversity. It threatens many species and one of the reasons I got into conservation science was to help solve this problem. I conduct research on pangolins, which are threatened by trade-driven harvest, and I have seen first-hand pangolins being killed in restaurants so I am acutely aware of what wildlife trade can entail. To me such events also signify how much remains unknown about wildlife trade, including consumer tastes and preferences for many species, and the size and structure of markets for wildlife products, and what particular characteristics might mean for conservation interventions to ensure that where trade occurs it is ecologically sustainable. Thankfully, there has been an increase in research on wildlife trade in the last decade that is helping to fill these knowledge gaps. I expect this will continue in the future, especially given purported links between wildlife trade and the emergence of COVID-19.
Sunda pangolin Manis javanica which is threatened by overexploitation. (c) Dan Challender/Save Vietnam’s Wildlife
In this context, accurately characterising wildlife use and trade, including whether it poses a threat to species—and if so the severity of the threat—is important to informing conservation actions and policy at various scales. In an article published this week in Conservation Letters, I and a group of co-authors discuss three issues that we identified in recent publications on wildlife trade. These involve mischaracterising wildlife trade and the threat that it may pose to species, and misrepresenting policy instruments and how they work. As an example, one of the papers we highlight misinterpreted data from The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and assumed that species in trade are thereby “threatened by trade”. Other studies concluded that species are likely negatively affected by trade when there is a lack of evidence that this is the case.
This is concerning because such research may inform the adoption of policies which restrict trade in particular species despite it not being a threat to them. Such policies may also reduce or remove benefits to people along wildlife supply chains and undermine the contribution that particular markets make to achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Of course, equally concerning would be research that overlooks the potential detrimental impact of harvest and use on species where it does a pose a threat to species. Based on this we call for researchers to take great care when analysing and interpreting data on wildlife use and trade and making associated conservation recommendations. For example, we suggest that researchers pay particular attention to the language they use and consult the resources available that accompany wildlife trade-related databases and/or consult with database managers or other experts to ensure that data are being interpreted in the correct manner when conducting analysis. We also make related recommendations for journal editors, database managers, policymakers and civil society organisations.
Reticulated python Malayopython reticulatus which can be traded in large volumes without trade posing a threat to the survival of the species in the wild. (c) Dan Natusch
I expect that the article may frustrate some researchers—and I have therefore been apprehensive about it being published—but the motivation for the article was not to openly criticise other researchers who work on wildlife trade. Rather, my co-authors and I are genuinely concerned that research which mischaracterises wildlife trade could inadvertently result in measures that do more harm than good for biodiversity conservation and people who benefit from wildlife trade, many of which may have few alternative livelihood options. The reality is that wildlife trade research can be challenging because it often involves complex datasets while at the same time, we often lack data on many species (e.g., population parameters), which makes evaluating the impact of harvest and trade difficult. I suspect that most researchers have probably made—or will at some point in their careers make—mistakes in their research. I know I have. I am hopeful that our article will help nudge things in the right direction for wildlife trade research. I also hope it will not lead to distracting arguments which so often characterize the wildlife trade discourse, for example the simplification of issues to anti-trade vs. pro-trade perspectives, which does not reflect the reality or complexity of wildlife trade.
The conservation of biodiversity requires robust science to underpin policies and interventions, which requires high-quality research and more collaboration, rather than conflict, between researchers. I’m confident that I speak for my co-authors as well when I say that we are ready and eager to collaborate to meet this challenge regarding wildlife trade research.
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The early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic have been linked to a “wet” market in Wuhan, in the Hubei province of eastern China. Wet markets are common in Asia, Africa and elsewhere, selling fresh fruit and vegetables, poultry, fresh meat and live animals, including wildlife. Reports initially indicated that the coronavirus which causes COVID-19 may have been transmitted to people from wildlife at this wet market because of unsanitary conditions.
The pandemic has led to some wildlife conservation organisations to call for blanket bans on wildlife trade on public health grounds. They include bans on commercial trade in wildlife for human consumption and the closure of these markets. More extreme calls from more than 200 organisations include ending the keeping, breeding, domestication and use of all wildlife, which also covers traditional medicine.
But blanket bans are unlikely to benefit people or wildlife, and are unfeasible because they overlook the complexity of the wildlife trade. The COVID-19 outbreak should not be used opportunistically to prescribe global wildlife trade policy. A more appropriate response would be to improve wildlife trade regulation with a direct focus on human health.
Despite the way it is often presented, wildlife trade involves far more than animals harvested in tropical regions and sold in China. It includes species from land, freshwater and marine habitats, including fisheries, in production systems ranging from wild harvesting to captive breeding. It takes place at local and international levels, includes legal and illegal, sustainable and unsustainable components, and is measurable in billions of dollars annually.
Bans are seldom the answer
Unquestionably, wildlife trade regulations require review in response to COVID-19 for public health reasons. However, while bans may appear to be a logical solution, their impact on public health cannot be assumed to be positive. They could also do more harm than good for biodiversity. Typically, prohibition does not deter all traders in marketplaces. This would mean that trade in some products would likely continue illegally. Traders would be motivated by financial profits, with an increased risk of trade being controlled by organised crime.
Bans may not stigmatise consumption either, especially where products are socially desirable, meaning consumer demand for many products would persist. This is a public health concern because, unregulated, such trade would likely be clandestine and, if unsanitary, could pose the risk of transmitting disease from animals to humans. Bans, especially where they remove legal supply options, such as captive breeding, could raise perceptions of scarcity, and drive up black market prices and increase incentives for poaching. This could accelerate the exploitation and extinction of species in the wild.
The outcome for wildlife economies would also be uncertain. For example, the wildlife “breeding economy” in China is estimated to involve 14 million people and be worth more than US$74 billion annually. The fate of animals under human care and the people employed in these industries would require consideration. In China, bamboo rat and badger farmers are to be compensated and given grants for new businesses following the closure of almost 3,000 farms in response to COVID-19.
To be effective, bans would need to be largely in step with local social norms and well enforced. But this is unrealistic in many parts of the world where law enforcement is cripplingly under-resourced in terms of technology and manpower. Local people may also challenge the legitimacy of any bans. Requiring agencies to enforce comprehensive bans in these circumstances would most likely overwhelm them.
Even where there are strong laws and enforcement, implementation is challenging and illegal trade still occurs frequently, such as the harvesting and trafficking of the European eel in Europe. It is also unlikely that law enforcement would receive the financial investment necessary to enforce bans in the long term, due to political constraints on spending and other more urgent priorities.
Better regulated trade
Banning all wildlife trade is a knee-jerk and potentially self-defeating measure. A more appropriate response would be improving regulation of wildlife markets, especially those involving live animals. This should include full consideration of public health and animal welfare concerns to ensure there is low risk of future animal-to-human disease outbreaks.
This could be achieved by focusing on highest-risk species and improving conditions along supply chains and in markets, such as health and safety and sanitation, and regular animal health checks. These practices could draw on existing standards that apply to regulations for transporting live animals by air.
Like bans, any new or revised regulations would require enforcement. But approaches such as “smart regulation” could be used to aid the process. This could ensure that new measures are culturally appropriate and incentivise local people, traders, buyers and law enforcement agencies to comply. Devising regulations in this way would mean they are more likely to be effective, rather than undermined which a blanket ban would do.
Rushing to indiscriminately ban all wildlife trade in response to COVID-19 would not eradicate the risk of animal-to-human disease outbreaks. It could also have a severe impact on livelihoods and biodiversity. Improved regulations that focus on health, if implemented well, would avoid these effects while ensuring a low risk of future disease outbreaks.
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On February 24th 2020, China’s top legislature adopted a decision to “thoroughly ban the illegal trading of wildlife and eliminate the consumption of wild animals to safeguard people’s lives and health.” The decision has binding force and it took effect on the same day as its promulgation, i.e., February 24th [5,6].
Consumption of terrestrial wild animals for edible uses prohibited
As COVID-19 is assumed to have close links with the consumption of wild animals, the new decision prohibits the eating of terrestrial wild animals, including those that are bred or reared in captivity. Hunting, trading and transporting terrestrial wild animals for the purpose of consumption is also prohibited .
This is a big move. Previously, only the 402 species on the List of Wild Animals Under State Priority Conservation were banned from consumption as wild meat in China . However, this list is outdated and does not correspond to the conservation status of some species . Consumption of other wild terrestrial animals was permitted, subject to obtaining appropriate certificates (e.g., hunting, breeding, quarantine, trade) from the government. However, this certification system was sometimes poorly implemented. Buying a certificate and using it for “laundering” of wild-caught animals was possible .
Which species which are currently consumed are not included in these new measures?
Although this new ban was quickly celebrated by the media and some in the international conservation community, there are several nuances and exceptions that must be clarified.
Aquatic wildlife, expect these banned from edible use by the Wildlife Protection Law (2018), is exempt, because the National People’s Congress (NPC) views “fishing as a natural resource and an important agricultural product, as well as a common international practise” . This means, for example, sea cucumbers and other widely consumed species will continue to be traded under the same rules as before.
Wild plants are not included in the ban.
Farmed amphibians and reptiles on the List of National Key Protected Aquatic Wild Animals for Farming and the List of National Key Protected Economic Aquatic Animals and Plants Resources, such as the giant salamander, softshell turtle and crocodile, currently can still be consumed, until new regulations from the Ministry of Agriculture are annouced.
Farmed, terrestrial animals on the List of Genetic Resource of Livestock and Poultry can now be traded for food consumption. A publicly available version of this list can be found in a report to UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, and includes various breeds of pig, chicken, duck, goose, special poultry (e.g., ostrich), cattle, sheep, goat, horse, donkey, rabbit and deer . Mink and raccoon dog are also on the list, possibly due to demand for their pelts. Previously, some species not in the list could be farmed (e.g., civets and bamboo rats) but farming these species is now illegal, if they are to be consumed as food. The Chinese government plans to revise this list and the changes would impact certain species and industries.
What about non-edible uses?
Non-edible use of wild terrestrial animals, such as scientific research, medicinal use, and display, are still regulated by existing laws, such as the Wildlife Protection Law (2018) and the Traditional Chinese Medicine Law (2016) . For example, it remains legal to use processed pangolin scales from a certificated source, or bear bile from legal farms for medical purposes, or stockpiled saiga horn. This means that a substantial number of species of conservation concern are unaffected by the ban.
What about the illegal trade?
Some wildlife trade is already illegal (e.g., tiger, ivory) in China, and the Chinese government has announced it will clamp down further on such trade with “aggravated punishment”, suggesting stronger penalties will be used for illegal wildlife trade. In the existing Criminal Law and its interpretation (2014), if the circumstances are especially serious, life imprisonment or death shall be sentenced .
Further details are not currently available but should become clear in forthcoming legislation. Since the rise of COVID-19, the Chinese government has investigated over 600 cases of wildlife crime , and hopefully, this greater focus on law enforcement will become the norm.
What about the Chinese public’s views?
Winners and losers
People in the farmed wild animal industry could face severe economic losses as a result of this new legislation. Previously, the farming of certain wildlife species was encouraged by the government to help alleviate poverty . The wildlife farming industry is estimated to have created employment for more than 14 million people and worth over £56 billion, with pelt production (e.g., mink, raccoon dog, fox) representing 74.8% and food consumption involving species such as the giant salamander, frog and blue peacock, 24% . The National People’s Congress spokesman stated that local governments should guide these farmers towards other industries and provide compensation for their losses . Meanwhile, what happens to the captive-bred animals remains uncertain, with potential implications for animal welfare.
It has taken so much human suffering to bring attention to this issue. However, the speed with which this new decision has been taken offers hope that the lessons of COVID-19 will be learned.
Special thanks to Melissa Arias, Dan Challender, E.J. Milner-Gulland, Xuesong Han, Amy Hinsley, Xilin Jiang, Zhi Lu, Xiao Mao, Jessica Philips, Michael ’t Sas-Rolfes, Terry Townshend, Lingyun Xiao, for their valuable comments and edits to this blog.
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 全面禁止非法野生动物交易革除滥食野生动物陋习——全国人大常委会法工委有关部门负责人答记者问Interview with the Legislative Affairs Commission of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. Xinhua. 2020/2020-02-28. http://www.xinhuanet.com/politics/2020-02/24/c_1125620750.htm.
 China’s legislature adopts decision on banning illegal trade, consumption of wildlife. Xinhua. 2020/2020-02-25. http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2020-02/24/c_138814139.htm.
 那些没有且无法被检疫的肉，你真的敢吃吗？Meat without quarantine certificate, you dare to eat? Shanshui Conservation Center. 2020/2020-02-25. http://www.shanshui.org/information/1961/.
 野生动物保护名录，一把刻度模糊的卡尺 Wild animal protection list, a ruler with blurred numbers. Shanshui Conservation Center. /2020-02-28. http://www.shanshui.org/information/1906/.
 养殖技术成熟，就可以开放市场了吗？Can the market be opened if farming techniques are mature? Shanshui Conservation Center. /2020-02-28. https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/HuguwEKlm35qO80sWpCCwg.
 中华人民共和国农业部 Ministry of Agriculture P R of C. 中国畜禽遗传资源状况Genetic Resource of Livestock and Poultry of China. 2003.
 最高人民法院最高人民检察院关于办理走私刑事案件适用法律若干问题的解释 Interpretations of the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate on several issues concerning the application of law in handling criminal cases of smuggling. 2014/2020-02-28. http://www.court.gov.cn/shenpan-xiangqing-7081.html.
 新华时评:用法治革除吃“野味”的陋习 Xinhua commentary: use the rule of law to remove the bad habits of eating wild animals. Xinhua. 2020/2020-02-28. http://www.xinhuanet.com/politics/2020-02/24/c_1125620829.htm.
 野生动物修法调查 | 22天，10万份问卷，聊聊这些民间的声音 Survey on the revision of laws on wildlife: 22 days, 100,000 responses, voices from the public. Shanshui Conservation Center. 2020/2020-02-28. http://www.shanshui.org/information/1926/.
 野生动植物产业助力江西省林业精准扶贫 Wildlife industries help poverty alleviation in Jiangxi. 2018/2020-02-28. http://www.forestry.gov.cn/main/5383/20180111/1066442.html.
 中国工程院 Chinese Academy of Engineering. 中国野生动物养殖产业可持续发展战略研究Research on Sustainable Development Strategy of Chinese Wild Animal Farming Industry. 2017.
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 甲鱼等还能吃吗？农业农村部：将进一步明确养殖两栖爬行动物禁食范围 Can softshell turtles still be consumed? Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs: will announce further clarification on farmed reptiles and amphibians. 2020/2020-02-29.http://www.xinhuanet.com/2020-02/27/c_1125634919.htm
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