China appears to be weakening its post-Covid restrictions on the farming of wildlife such as porcupines, civets and bamboo rats, which raises a new risk to public health and biodiversity, warn NGOs and experts.
Before the pandemic, wildlife farming was promoted by government agencies as an easy way for rural Chinese people to get rich. But China issued an outright ban on hunting, trading and transporting wildlife, as well as the consumption as food, after public health experts suggested the virus could have originated from the supply chain.
Around 14 million people worked in the wildlife farming industry before the Covid restrictions, with the industry worth an estimated 520bn yuan (£60bn).
The ban covers almost 1,800 animals with important ecological, economic and social values – known as the “three values”. This included hedgehogs, raccoon dogs, civets, wild boars, porcupines and bamboo rats. Yet the consumption of wildlife as food has been lying in a grey area, say experts, with authorities admitting that current regulations aren’t clear enough.
Not long after the ban, wildlife breeding centres across China were ordered to shut, cutting off the primary source of income for millions of farmers. Yet farmers could still captively breed a smaller number of exempted animals on the banned list including silver foxes and raccoon dogs if they obtained a government-approved licence.
While regulations do ban eating species from unlawful sources or under protection, they do not say whether the “eating of animals with the three values or other terrestrial wildlife not under a specific type of protection is legal or not. This creates a loophole,” said Yang Heqing, a National People’s Congress official.
A more recent update to the Wildlife Protection Law has now eased restrictions on the farming of wildlife, claim NGOs and experts. “Under the second draft, the farming of wildlife with the three values doesn’t need to get approved. You just need to register. And if something goes wrong, you’ll only need to rectify the problem within a given period of time,” said a public statement from the Shan Shui Conservation Center, a Chinese NGO dedicated to species and ecosystem conservation.
“We worry that such changes will weaken the supervision and protection of animals with the three values, thus impacting wild populations,” the statement added.
The more recent update has also removed the phrase “preventing public health risks”, weakening the link between protecting wildlife and safeguarding public health, say NGOs.
“The best way to truly safeguard public health is to let wildlife stay where they are supposed to be, which is their natural habitat,” said the Chinese wildlife conservation volunteer group Anti-Poaching Crime Squad in a statement on WeChat. “Any attempts to farm, breed, buy or sell and utilise them, especially by eating them, will only increase public health risks.”
Categories exempted for captive breeding contain 16 kinds of animals, including a few varieties of chickens, ducks and deer, as well as silver foxes, raccoon dogs and minks. But the regulation changes have been viewed as newly created contexts for reviving the now-dormant wildlife business.
“It’s highly likely that wildlife, especially species with the three values, will return to the public eye. It would certainly mean a temporary victory for supporters of the industry,” Zhou Jinfeng, the secretary-general of China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation, told the Guardian.
“Let’s not forget that there have already been three major outbreaks caused by coronaviruses since the start of the 21st century: Sars, Mers and Covid. These outbreaks have been thought to be closely linked to wildlife. We should learn the lesson and introduce policies guiding workers in the industry to find alternatives,” he added.
Song Wan, a former bamboo rat farmer from Hunan province, suffered huge losses from the abrupt ban on wildlife farming. Now he is ready to resume. “I still keep a small number of the rats. If wildlife farming does get allowed again, I will start raising more.”
Ran Jingcheng, a researcher at the College of Forestry at Guizhou University, has said he opposes consumption of wildlife as food and the poaching of endangered species, but that it is “unscientific to consider captively bred animals the same as those living in the wild”.
Other experts disagree. “To be relaxing those regulations is outrageous,” said Prof Diana Bell, a conservation biologist at the University of East Anglia. “They need to think really carefully about this because, from what we’ve learned in porcupine farms in Vietnam, many animals were actually obtained through the laundering of animals caught from the wild. Unless we can address that, such activities will present a major threat to biodiversity in Asia.”
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