Editor’s Note: Aron White is a wildlife campaigner and China specialist at the Environmental Investigation Agency, a non-profit based in London which documents and campaigns against environmental destruction around the world. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.
The biodiversity crisis – the rapid and escalating disintegration of the living systems upon which we all depend – has in many ways been overshadowed in 2020.
This was supposed to be a “super year” for biodiversity, marking the confluence of several major intergovernmental meetings where big commitments were to be made. Most of these did not happen, mainly due to the disruption caused by the pandemic.
The emergence of Covid-19, which has infected more than 54 million people worldwide, was initially linked to a market in Wuhan, China where wild animals were sold.
High-level discussion of the potential role that the wildlife trade played in triggering the pandemic meant that, for a brief period at least, political and public attention honed in on the commercial exploitation of wild animals.
Destruction of natural habitats, climate change, industrial livestock farming and exploitation of wildlife are all key drivers of both the biodiversity crisis and increased risk of pandemics. While we don’t know exactly how Covid-19 – which possibly originated in bats – first came to infect humans, broader scrutiny of the wildlife trade was long overdue.
Hopes that this newfound attention might convince key governments to adopt a more cautious approach were bolstered in February, when China announced a ban on the trade and consumption of all wild animals as food.
Around the same time, the Chinese government announced that the country’s Wildlife Protection Law would be revised. The legislation has long been controversial; despite its stated intention to protect wild animals, its language often permits commercial trade in wildlife – even endangered species.
Following the announcement, Chinese NGOs, academics, medical experts and lawmakers publicly called for bans to be extended to include the use of wild animals in China’s traditional medicine industry.
Now, almost a year later, with much political attention having seemingly moved on, a new draft of China’s wildlife law has been published, but the result is a puzzling and frustrating document.
On one hand, it consolidates what remains one of the most ambitious policy changes adopted by any government in response to Covid-triggered concerns over wildlife trade – a near comprehensive ban on breeding, selling and consuming terrestrial wild animals as food.
If implemented effectively and ethically, including proper provision of compensation for farmers, this could be good news for many species. Yet these prohibitions sit alongside language that allows commercial use of wild animals for non-food purposes, such as “exhibition” or traditional medicine. Moreover, the species that can still be bought and sold include some of the world’s most endangered wild animals, which are being driven to the brink of extinction by demand for their body parts.
The scales of an estimated 745,000 pangolins being traded illegally have been seized in the past decade, with the majority of seizures destined for China, where they are in demand for use in traditional medicine.
Despite a 2016 ban on international commercial trade, Chinese authorities maintain a domestic market in pangolin scales through dubiously managed mechanisms that are replete with opportunities to launder smuggled stock.
Leopards, Asia’s most heavily trafficked big cat, face a similar problem. The international trade has been banned since 1975 and only a few hundred remain in the wild in China, yet authorities continue to permit production and sale of tonic wines and pills claiming to contain leopard bone.
Other products made from endangered animals that can still be legally traded in China include saiga antelope horn, the bile of farmed bears and the skins of captive-bred tigers. Even where products in legal trade are derived from captive populations, there are serious concerns that this serves to stimulate demand for the product sourced from the wild, not to mention often horrific animal welfare implications.
The new draft law doesn’t just pose risks to biodiversity by legitimizing the consumption of threatened species in some cases, such as traditional medicine, but its inconsistent approach to disease risk could also undermine the law’s ability to prevent further outbreaks of diseases such as Covid-19.
Specific risks may vary, but if lawmakers believe the threat from breeding and processing wild animals for food is so high that it must be comprehensively stopped, why allow the same activities in the name of different types of consumption?
Most traditional Chinese medicine does not use the body parts of threatened wild animals. Many practitioners and academics would like to see them replaced, and indeed recognize the image problem posed to the whole industry by the actions of a minority. Yet the incongruity of approach in China’s draft wildlife law suggests a lobby representing the interests of that minority still holds significant sway within Beijing’s opaque decision-making structures.
Frustratingly, this is despite genuine progress in environmental policies elsewhere, such as Xi Jinping’s recent pledge for carbon neutrality by 2060.
In May 2021, China is due to host a major environmental summit for the first time – the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity. The world’s wildlife cannot afford for this to be another failed attempt at multilateral action. While all governments urgently need to get their own house in order, the role of the host in setting an example of meaningful policy change can be crucial.
Yet as it stands, China’s wildlife legislation is still acting in direct opposition to the need to end exploitation of threatened wildlife.