China appears to be weakening its post-Covid restrictions on the farming of wild animals such as porcupines, civets and bamboo rats, posing 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 to get rich. But China issued an outright ban on the hunting, trade and transport of wild animals, as well as consumption as food, after public health experts suggested the virus could have originated in the supply chain.
Around 14 million people worked in the wildlife farming industry before the Covid restrictions, with the industry worth an estimate 520 billion yuan (£60 billion).
The ban covers almost 1,800 animals with significant 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 wild animals as food is in a gray area, experts say, with authorities admitting current regulations are not clear enough.
Shortly after the ban, wildlife breeding centers across China were ordered to close, cutting off the main source of income for millions of farmers. Still, farmers could still breed smaller numbers of exempt animals on the banned list, including silver foxes and raccoon dogs, in captivity if they got a government-approved license.
Although the regulations prohibit the eating of species from illegal sources or under protection, they do not specify whether “the consumption of animals with all three values or other terrestrial wild species without a specific type of protection is legal or not. It creates a loophole.” says Yang Heqingan official of the National People’s Congress.
One more recent update to the Wildlife Protection Act has now eased restrictions on wildlife farming, say NGOs and experts. “According to the second draft, the breeding of wild animals with the three values does not need to be approved. All you have to do is register. And if something goes wrong, you only have to fix the problem within a given time frame,” an audience said. statement of the Shan Shui Conservation Center, a Chinese NGO dedicated to the conservation of species and ecosystems.
“We are concerned that such changes could weaken the monitoring and protection of animals with the three values, thus impacting wild populations,” the statement added.
The most recent update also removed the phrase “prevent public health risks”, weakening the link between protecting wildlife and safeguarding public health, NGOs say.
“The best way to really protect 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 -Broaching Crime Squad in a statement. statement on WeChat. “Any attempt to grow, breed, buy or sell and use them, especially by eating them, will only increase the risks to public health.”
Categories exempted for breeding in captivity contain 16 kinds of animals, including a few varieties of chickens, ducks and deer, as well as silver foxes, raccoon dogs and mink. But the regulatory changes were seen as newly created contexts to revive the now dormant wildlife trade.
“Wildlife, especially species with all three values, is highly likely to return to the public eye. It would certainly mean a temporary victory for the supporters of the industry,” said Zhou Jinfeng, Secretary General of China. Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation, told the Guardian.
“Let’s not forget that there have already been three major epidemics caused by coronaviruses since the beginning of the 21st century: Sars, Mers and Covid. These epidemics are believed 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 breeder from Hunan Province, suffered huge losses following the brutal ban on breeding wild animals. Now he is ready to resume. “I still keep a small number of rats. If wildlife farming is allowed again, I will start raising more.
Ran Jingcheng, a researcher at the College of Forestry of Guizhou University, said he opposes the consumption of wild animals for food and the poaching of endangered species, but that it is “unscientific to view animals bred in captivity in the same way as those living in the wild”.
Other experts disagree. “To relax these regulations is outrageous,” said Professor Diana Bell, a conservation biologist at the University of East Anglia. “They need to think about it very carefully because, from what we have learned from porcupine farms in Vietnam, many animals were actually obtained by laundering wild-caught animals. Unless we can address them, such activities will pose a major threat to biodiversity in Asia.
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