Advocates Call for Other Countries to Follow China’s Wildlife Consumption Ban

HONG KONG — Most scientists agree the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed over 580,000 and infected more than 12 million, originated with human exposure to a virus carried by wild animals in a wildlife market in Wuhan, the largest city in central China. Many scientists believe pangolins, small, scale-covered mammals sometimes referred to as “scaly anteaters,” were the culprit, passing the virus along to humans. Bats and snakes may also have played a role.

In May, authorities in Wuhan officially banned the consumption of wild animals. The move affirmed a February decision by the Chinese government, which banned the buying, selling and eating of wild animals in an effort to stop the emergence of pandemic diseases.

By the middle of June, a number of provinces and cities in China, including the country’s capital, Beijing, had imposed strict bans on trading and consuming wildlife. But advocates warn that to truly limit the spread of future zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19, more needs to be done both in China and in Southeast Asia.

Public opinion may be increasingly on their side.

Back in March, the international conservation organization WWF surveyed 5,000 people living in Hong Kong, Myanmar, Japan, Thailand and Vietnam about their thoughts on COVID-19 and wild animal products. Of those, 93% said they were “very likely or likely” to support efforts by governments and health ministries to close all illegal and unregulated markets selling wildlife.

In Myanmar, where for years wildlife has been traded openly in autonomous regions bordering China, 96% of respondents said they would be likely or very likely to support efforts to close all illegal and unregulated wildlife markets. A third of respondents in Vietnam, where the prime minister has ordered the agriculture ministry to draft a similar directive to China’s, said the crisis had prompted them to stop consuming wildlife products.

[MORE: Southeast Asian Countries Struggle to Preserve Wild Tigers]

However, all eyes are currently on China, which is home to the world’s biggest wildlife farming operation. While the government has banned the buying, selling and eating of wild animals, it has already made exceptions for the use of wild animals for fur and traditional Chinese medicine, including the use of bear bile, milked from bears held in captivity, as a treatment for COVID-19. Farmers may also continue to farm for pet markets with government approval. For these reasons, critics say China’s current wildlife trade and consumption ban has several loopholes and problems.

“A ban which was legitimately being imposed for the protection of public health would prohibit farming of wild animals for any purpose,” says Amanda Whitfort, an expert on animal welfare law with the University of Hong Kong. “The exclusion of animals used for the fur and the traditional Chinese medicine industry suggests that public health is of lesser concern to the Chinese government than economic development.”

Some are concerned that Chinese wildlife businesses may skirt the ban by moving their operations over the border to neighboring countries and cities.

“Through a ‘One-day Tour’ of Vietnam, Myanmar or Laos, the traders, through tourist agencies, could continue their wildlife businesses in a foreign country on the other side of the Chinese border,” says Peter Li, China policy specialist at Humane Society International, an animal welfare organization with a global headquarters in Washington, D.C. “It is important that China cracks down on these transnational illegal businesses.”

Campaigners stress it is important that all Southeast Asian countries enhance law enforcement and crackdown on both the domestic and international poaching and wildlife trade.

[MORE: Endangered Turtles Reclaim Thailand’s Beaches During Lockdown]

Yanzhong Huang, a public health expert at the Council for Foreign Relations, says strict enforcement in China alone won’t be sufficient in the absence of effective international cooperation, not least because in many low-income countries in the region, consumption of wild animals remains the main source of protein.

“It is important for countries in the region to beef up regulation over wild animals and to educate people on the risk of consumption and trade of wide animals,” Huang says.

Christy Williams, regional director of WWF’s Asia Pacific program, agrees. While China has taken big steps, he says, “other Asian governments must follow by closing their high-risk wildlife markets and ending this trade once and for all to save lives and help prevent a repeat of the social and economic disruption we are experiencing around the globe today.”

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