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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 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.
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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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https://www.illegalwildlifetrade.net/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2021/02/Logo_w_Strap_HoriztonalOMS-logo.png00laurehttps://www.illegalwildlifetrade.net/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2021/02/Logo_w_Strap_HoriztonalOMS-logo.pnglaure2019-05-08 09:35:372019-06-18 09:47:24Reforms needed to the establishment of CITES trade bans
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