World leaders are attending an online summit to discuss the future of life on Earth. With a million species threat of extinction on this road, the UN biodiversity conference, known as COP15, should provide a new global plan for protecting nature. The host country, China, is committed to protect more of its land for nature. But one of the most radical and widespread measures introduced by the Chinese government in recent years has begun with the pandemic.
COVID-19 showed risk to human health represented by commodity and wildlife consumption. To strengthen wildlife protection and to reduce the risk of zoonotic viruses circulating in human populations, China issued a ban on eating wild meat and related goods in February 2020. It targets illegal wildlife trade. and fishing, but also the legal farming and sale of terrestrial wildlife for food – from snakes to bamboo rats – previously possible through a complex system of licenses.
People are still allowed to eat certain species, such as sika deer, which are farmed according to established techniques and pose a low risk to human health. The ban does not apply to wild aquatic species, such as fish. Nor does it cover other wildlife uses, such as raising species for medicinal purposes or as pets.
Critics argue that improved regulation, rather than a direct ban, would be a better solution, preserving commodity benefits for local communities while reducing pressure on wild populations and health risks. But for that to work, the Chinese state will need to manage the wildlife commodity. And our research, published in Current Biology, announced that China’s existing laws and regulations covering wildlife trade are inadequate.
If so, the ban is a useful, short-term halt, but should now be backed up by updated, evidence-based legislation and regulations for the future.
The 2020 ban aims to close loopholes in existing legislation, such as China’s Wildlife Protection Law, which was last amended in 2016 and changed again today. This law legalized and regulated the wildlife trade through a complex licensing system. Prior to the ban, most wildlife species could be farmed and exchanged for various purposes by law as long as a license was granted.
In doubt, there is no evidence -based framework for establishing which species can be farmed and commodity and which cannot. This means that species which are potential vectors of zoonotic diseases, or decline in the wild, can still slip into the regulatory net and be farmed and courted legally. There is also little collaboration between the various government departments responsible for the management of wildlife commodities, such as those covering forests, markets and agriculture.
A booming business
At the beginning of 2018, the Chinese government began promoting wildlife farming as a means of reducing rural poverty. The state offered loans and broadcast programs about successful wildlife farmers on Chinese television to attract more people to join the industry. The official state and provincial licenses granted for wildlife goods and farming are between 2017 and 2019. But the number of criminal cases related to illegal hunting or wildlife goods also increased in the same period. , indicating that the system does not control illegal practices in the industry.
There are also problems with licenses being granted legally. We looked at 13,121 trade licenses granted by state and provincial Forestry Bureaus between 2001 and 2020. Under these licenses, 254 species were legally exchanged for various trade purposes, of which 69 – along with masked civet palms, red deer and common buzzards – have been identified as possible hosts or vectors for at least one zoonotic disease.
Equally difficult is the pre-ban quarantine law approach. The law requires all wildlife to be quarantined before entering a market, but the official procedures proposed for doing so are not as good. There are protocols in place for domestic species, such as pigs. But while some similar wild species, such as pigs, may be quarantined under protocols for related domestic animals, there are no rules in place for widely exchanged species such as bamboo rats, palm civets or porcupines.
Under the ban, only a limited number of species may be farmed, depending on whether quarantine standards are available and whether farming techniques are effective and safe enough for wild populations and human health.
In order to safely manage wildlife trade in the future, quarantine protocols for different species must be informed with the latest scientific evidence. The licensing and monitoring – perhaps through the introduction of microchipping – of legitimate farm animals should also vary according to each species and what the evidence suggests is likely to reduce the risk to human health and the protection of species in the wild. And there should be close cooperation between government departments and farmers and traders, both within China and internationally.
But it is also important to reduce the demand for wildlife as food in China. While COVID-19 highlights the potential risks of wildlife trade and consumption, these lessons should extend to wildlife trade and farming for other purposes, such as medicine and pets.
Evidence -based changes to the way China manages its wildlife trade could help inspire and inform COP15 policies, especially to leaders of developing countries facing a similar situation at home. .