by Federico Varese, Rebecca W.Y. Wong
OXFORD – Since the outbreak of COVID-19, which is widely suspected to have emerged from Wuhan’s Huanan Market in December 2019, public-health and animal-rights advocates have been calling for more scrutiny of “wet markets,” where a wide range of live animals are kept in close contact with one another and with people, slaughtered on the spot, and sold. These markets are ripe for the cross-species transmission of novel pathogens, and they exist across Asia, where they support other industries, from restaurants and tourism to traditional medicines. We have both had a glimpse of the wildlife trade in China. In 2016, while conducting interviews for research on underground banking in several Chinese towns near the border with Macau and Hong Kong, we met an informal banker who offered us more than just money-laundering services. “I could easily arrange for you to eat a monkey tonight,” she boasted, before giving us the address of a family-run restaurant on the outskirts of Zhuhai.
We declined the offer of ye wei (wild animal), but we decided to visit the establishment anyway. Travelling for about an hour from downtown Zhuhai, we soon discovered that restaurants illegally serving wild animals were common once one entered the more discreet locations beyond the city centres. Most of the animals, we learned, were sourced from local poachers or from wet markets like the one in Wuhan.
As part of its response to the COVID-19 epidemic, the National People’s Congress of China in late February issued a permanent ban on the trade and consumption of non-aquatic wild animals. And yet, although China already had protections for endangered yellow-breasted buntings, these were among the 10,000 birds recovered by police in a barn outside Beijing last September. They were awaiting shipment to restaurants in southern China, where they would be offered as high-price menu options.
The question, then, is whether the new, broader ban will work. The Chinese government is absolutely correct to ban the trade of live wild animals, as these are known to transmit novel diseases to humans. The COVID-19 coronavirus will probably turn out to have originated in a bat (or, possibly, a smuggled pangolin), and the 2002-03 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome seems to have started when another coronavirus (SARS-CoV) made the leap from a civet cat to a human.
To some, a complete ban on consumption of wild land animals may seem draconian in a country where the practice has deep cultural roots. But a ban is, in fact, well aligned with current Chinese social norms. Contrary to a widespread perception in the West, several recent surveys show that most Chinese do not consume wild animals, and actually frown upon the practice. Especially among younger generations, there is a growing concern for animal welfare across China.
Still, there is a risk that the new law will create a false sense of accomplishment, undermining further efforts to end the trafficking of wild animals. After all, a 2015 ban on the sale of live poultry in Guangzhou had only a limited effect. Similarly, despite domestic laws that have been on the books for years, the sale and consumption of endangered species continues. In December 2019, Chinese customs authorities in Zhejiang province seized more than 10,000 kilograms of pangolin scales, and discovered that the same criminal group had smuggled in some 12,500 kilograms of scales the previous year.
Although consumption of wild animals appeals to only a small minority of people, poachers wouldn’t run the risk of importing and distributing them if there were no demand for them. Much of that demand comes from the traditional-medicine trade. On another of our research trips – this time to Yunnan province in southwest China – we interviewed the manager of a Chinese medicine store who proudly informed us that he was offering tiger-penis soup, a delicacy billed as a male sexual-performance enhancer. Other prevalent superstitions in China include the belief that eating exotic fish will make you a better swimmer, and that owl meat can improve your eyesight.
As one of us (Wong) details in a 2019 book, the criminal networks that cater to these tastes stretch across international borders and many provinces within China. Their illegal wildlife procurement and trafficking have proven to be both lucrative and low-risk, owing to a lack of enforcement.
But the COVID-19 pandemic has given the Chinese government an opportunity to effect real change on this issue. It should use the global outcry over wet markets and the wild-animal trade to make animal welfare a top policy priority. And it must step up enforcement on the ground, especially in the trade of endangered species. As we have seen, legal bans are only as effective as the mechanisms in place to uphold them.
Fortunately, most Chinese support bans on wild-animal consumption. To ensure that the rest of society gets on board, social influencers and state media should be deployed to dispel the falsehoods and superstitions associated with wildlife consumption. Such myths may not be widely believed, but they influence enough people to drive demand and create the conditions for a global disaster.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019.