Although it is not known which animal transferred the virus to humans – bats, snakes and pangolin have all been suggested – China has acknowledged that it needs to master its lucrative wildlife industry if she wants to prevent a new outbreak. In late February, it imposed a temporary ban on all agriculture and the consumption of « terrestrial wildlife of significant ecological, scientific and social value », which is expected to be enacted later this year. But ending trade will be difficult. The cultural roots of China’s use of wild animals go deep, not only for food, but also for traditional medicine, clothing, ornaments and even pets. But today, dishes using animals are still eaten in parts of China. Public health experts say the ban is an important first step, but ask Beijing to seize this crucial opportunity to fill the gaps – such as the use of wild animals in traditional Chinese medicine – and start to change cultural attitudes in China around consuming wildlife.
Markets with exotic animals
The Wuhan seafood market, at the center of the new coronavirus epidemic, sold much more than fish. Snakes, raccoon dogs, porcupines and deer were just a few of the species crammed inside the cages, side by side with buyers and store owners,according to the images obtained by CNN. Some animalswere filmed being massacred in the market in front of customers. CNN has not been able to independently verify the images, which was posted on Weibo by a concerned citizen, and has since been deleted by government censors. It’s somewhere in this mass of wildlife that scientists believe the new coronavirus probablyfirst spread to humans. The disease has now infected more than 94,000 people and has killed more than 3,200 worldwide. The Wuhan market was not unusual. Across mainland China, hundreds of similar markets offer a wide range of exotic animals for a variety of purposes. The danger of an epidemic arises when many exotic animals from different backgrounds are kept nearby. These animals have their own viruses, « said Leo Poon, professor of virology at the University of Hong Kong. « These viruses can jump from one species to another, so this species can become an enhancer, which greatly increases the amount of virus on the wet market. When large numbers of people visit markets selling these animals every day, Poon said the risk of the virus jumping to humans is greatly increased. Poon was one of the first scientists to decode the SARS coronavirus during the 2003 epidemic. It was linked to civet cats kept for food in a Guangzhou market, but Poon says researchers are still wondering if SARS was transmitted to cats of another species. (Civet farmed cats) did not have the virus, suggesting that they acquired it from the markets of another animal, « he said.
Strength and status
Annie Huang, a 24-year-old student from southern Guangxi Province, said that she and her family regularly visit restaurantsthatserve wild animals.She said that eating wildlife, such as boar and peacock, is considered good for your health, because diners also absorb the animals’ physical strength and resilience. Exotic animals can also be an important status symbol. “Wild animals are expensive. If you treat someone with wild animals, you will be considered a tribute, « she said. A single peacock can cost up to 800 yuan ($ 144). Huang asked to use a pseudonym when talking about the newly illegal trade because of his views on the consumption of wild animals. She said she doubted the ban would be effective in the long term. « Trade could be weak for a few months … but after a while, probably in a few months, people would most likely come back again, » she said, she said Beijing did not publish a list full of wild animals included in the ban, but current wildlife protection law gives some clues to what could be prohibited. This law classifies wolves, civet cats and partridges as wild animals, and states that authorities « should take action » to protect them, with little information on specific restrictions The new ban provides exemptions for « livestock » and, following ruling animals, including pigeons and rabbits , are reclassified as livestock.to allow their trade to continue.
Billion dollar industry
Attempts to control the spread of disease are also hampered by the fact that the exotic animal industry in China, especially wild animals, is huge. A 2017 government-sponsored report by the Chinese Academy of Engineering found that the country’s wildlife trade was worth more than $ 73 billion and employed more than one million people. Since the virus hitin December,nearly 20,000 wildlife farms in seven Chinese provinces have been closed or quarantined, including breeders specializing in peacocks, foxes, deer and turtles, according to local government press releases. It is not clear what effect the ban could have on the future of the industry – but there are signs the people of China may have already been turning away from eating wild animals even before the epidemic. A study by the Beijing Normal University and the China Wildlife Conservation Association in 2012 found that in major Chinese cities, a third of people had used wild animals during their lifetime to eat, feed or in 2004 However, the researchers also found that just over 52% of the total respondents agreed that wildlife should not be eaten. It was even higher in Beijing, where more than 80% of residents were opposed to the consumption of wildlife. In comparison, about 42% of total respondents were against the practice in the previous survey in 2004. Since the coronavirus epidemic, there has been fierce criticism of the exotic animal trade and calls for suppression. A group of 19 academics from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and prominent universities have even jointly issued a public statement calling for an end to trade, saying it should be treated as a « public safety issue ». The vast majority of people in China react to abuse of wildlife like people in other countries – with anger and repulsion, « said Aron White, wildlife activist with the Environmental Investigation Agency . I think we should listen to voices calling for change and support those voices.
Escape from traditional medicine
The use of exotic animals in traditional Chinese medicine is a major obstacle to the total ban on wildlife trade. Beijing has strongly encouraged the use of traditional Chinese medicine under President Xi Jinping, and the industry is now worth about $ 130 billion. As early as October 2019, state media China Daily reported that « traditional medicine is a treasure of Chinese civilization embodying the wisdom of the nation and its people. » Many species that are consumed as food in parts of China are also used in the country’s traditional medicine. The new ban makes an exception for wild animals used in traditional Chinese medicine. According to the ruling, the use of wildlife is not illegal for this, but must now be « strictly monitored. » The announcement is unclear, however, how this monitoring will occur or what the penalties are for inadequate protection of wild animals, leaving the door open for abuse. A 2014 study by Beijing Normal University and the China Wildlife Conservation Association found that while deer are eaten as meat, the animal’s penis and blood are also used medicinally. Bears and snakes are used for food and medicine. Wildlife activist Aron White said that under the new restrictions there is a risk that wild animals may be sold or raised for medicine, but that they will then be trafficked for food. He said the Chinese government should avoid loopholes by extending the ban to all vulnerable wildlife, regardless of their use. (Currently) the law prohibits the consumption of pangolins, but does not prohibit the use of their scales in traditional Chinese medicine, « he said. « The impact of this is that, overall, consumers are receiving mixed messages. The line between animals used for meat and used for medicine is also already very fine, because people often eat animals for the perceived health benefits. In a study published in International Health in February, American and Chinese researchers studied the attitudes of rural citizens in southern China’s provinces to the consumption of wild animals. A 40-year-old farmer in Guangdong says that eating bats can prevent cancer. Another man says they can improve your vitality. I injured my waist very seriously, it was painful, and I could not stand the air conditioner. One day a friend of mine made snake soup and I had three bowls of it, and my size obviously improved. Otherwise, I could not stay here for so long with you, « a 67-year-old guangdong farmer told study interviewers.
Changing the culture
The Chinese legislature, the National People’s Congress, will meet later this year to formally amend the Wildlife Protection Act. A spokesperson for the agency’s standing committee said the current ban is only a temporary measure until the new wording for the law can be drafted and approved. Hong Kong virologist Leo Poon said the government has a big decision on whether to officially end the wildlife trade in China or simply try to find safer options. « If it is part of Chinese culture, they still want to consume a particular exotic animal, then the country can decide to keep that culture, that’s okay, » he said. (But) then they have to find another policy – how can we provide clean meat of this exotic animal to the public? Should it be domesticated? Should we be doing more checking or inspection? Implement biosecurity measures? « He said. An outright ban could raise as many questions and questions. Ecohealth Alliance pPeter Daszak, a resident, said that if the trade is quickly made illegal, it would push him out of the wet markets in cities, creating black markets in rural communities where it is easier to hide animals from the authorities. Underground, the illegal trade in wild animals for consumption and medicine could become even more Then we will see (virus) outbreaks not starting in the markets this time, but in rural communities, « said Daszak. » (And) people will not speak to the authorities because it is actually illegal « Poon said the ultimate effectiveness of the ban may depend on the government’s willingness to enforce the law. » Culture cannot be changed overnight hand, it takes time, ”he said.