Virus jolts China to curb animal trade before hosting UN summit
INTERNATIONAL - The deadly coronavirus that has infected more than 80,000 people in China could push the government to boost protection for animals and plants before it hosts the United Nations’ biennial conference on global biodiversity in October.
China is scheduled to hold the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in the southwest city of Kunming against a background of a global epidemic that probably originated from bats and was transmitted to humans via wild animals. The outbreak has sparked public criticism over loopholes in laws designed to preserve the nation’s wildlife, with environment groups, government institutions, university professors and even state media demanding tougher restrictions on the widespread trade in wild animals.
As the number of infections from the coronavirus exploded in January and February in the city of Wuhan, the outbreak was linked to a meat, fish and vegetable market in the city that sold everything from peacocks to hedgehogs. A third of the early Covid-19 cases were later found to have no traceable connection to the market, but scientists and officials believe the virus did jump to humans from animals, and the consumption of wild meat remains the No. 1 culprit for the public health crisis.
The government took drastic measures as thousands quickly sickened in the province, bringing large sections of the economy and transportation networks almost to a halt to slow the spread of the disease. The crisis could slash economic growth to as low as 3.4% this year, the slowest since 1990, according to the Shanghai Advanced Institute of Finance.
While the government’s priority is to contain the epidemic and get the country back on its feet, it will face increasing criticism over the trade in exotic meats that have been known to pose health risks since the outbreak of SARS in 2002.
In an online survey in February of 100,000 people in China, about 12% said they had consumed wild-animal products and almost all of those said they will no longer do it. Nine out of ten said China should ban exhibiting wild animals in public except in zoos. Many said they had never paid attention to wildlife issues until the coronavirus.
“The virus has made people realize that their health and wellbeing are closely related to the wellbeing of wild animals and the health of biodiversity,” said Professor Jiang Jinsong at Tsinghua University’s department of History of Science. “Economic loss and heath damage touch everybody.”
China is one of 17 “megadiverse countries,” according to Conservation International and the UN, harboring nearly 10% of all plant species and 14% of animals. But decades of urbanization and development have tainted the land and eroded habitats. Some 90% of China’s grasslands and 40% of its major wetlands are being degraded, according to the Environment Ministry. About 11% of the nation’s major flora and 21% of its vertebrates are threatened.
The 1988 Wildlife Protection Law protects animals such as pandas and snow leopards that have value to “ecology, science and society.” While it was amended in 2016 to provide extra protection for some habitats and other issues, more than a third of China’s mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles still aren’t covered, according to Beijing-based Shan Shui Conservation Centre.
Among them are the nation’s 130 types of bats.
For decades the government prioritized growth and the environment took a back seat. That began to change in the past few years as the cost to health of years of rampant pollution began to take its toll. President Xi Jinping called for an “ecological civilization,” but Environment Minister Li Ganjie said last year that, while some progress has been made, “conflicts between biodiversity protection and economic development exist” and the outlook is not optimistic.
Farming of “wild” animals is now big business. More than 14 million people were employed in 2016 in the industry, which had 520 billion yuan ($74 billion) in sales. The Chinese Academy of Engineering described it in a 2017 report as “one of China’s most vibrant industries.”
The coronavirus may change that. In late February, the National People’s Congress, China’s top legislature, announced a ban on eating all terrestrial wild animals, wild-caught or farmed. It’s a first step toward eradicating the trade altogether but may not be enough to get a total ban included in the Wildlife Protection Law, which the NPC is due to begin revising this year.
“It doesn’t touch the more complicated issues of how to regulate use of animals for medicine, fashion and entertainment,” said Li Shuo, policy adviser at Greenpeace China.
Traditional Chinese Medicine widely uses exotic animal parts such as pangolin scales and deer antlers that are considered to have unique benefits. And many people believe that wild meat provides advantages for health and vitality that are absent in farmed animals.
Even the definition of “wild” is complicated. Local authorities often provide special licenses for farmers to breed animals for sale that are normally only found in the wild. That allows unscrupulous traders to pass off wild-caught game as farm-bred in markets.
Nine conservation institutions and organizations jointly submitted suggested amendments to the Wildlife Protection Law to the NPC, including a fundamental change to the language of the legislation.
“For a long time, wild animals have been seen as a resource to use, so different protection categories are made depending on their economic value,” the groups wrote. “This way of thinking no longer suits today’s ecology protection principles.”
Conservationists hope the hosting of the UN conference in Kunming, together with a public awakening of the hazards due to the spread of the coronavirus, will jolt China to the forefront of conservation by brokering a new global biodiversity framework -- an ecological equivalent to the UN climate-change framework agreed in Paris in 2015.
It won’t be easy. The biodiversity conference 10 years ago in Aichi, Japan, set 20 goals to be achieved by now, including for water conservation and pollution abatement. Most haven’t been met. According to the WWF, the world’s population of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians declined by 60% between 1970 and 2014. A UN report last year said the rate of extinction is accelerating.
“Progress in wildlife protection could be a highlight for China’s work as the host country this year,” said Greenpeace’s Li.