In a move that is provoking alarm around the world, China has eased its restrictions on wildlife farming that was put in place in February 2020 in the wake of COVID-19 outbreak.
Before the pandemic, China’s wildlife farming was largely unknown outside the country—but strongly promoted for decades by the government as a way for the rural poor to make money. The popular state TV series Secrets of Getting Rich (on air since 2001) often features farms raising bamboo rats, snakes, toads, porcupines, and squirrels. Even just a few weeks before the outbreak, the Chinese government was actively encouraging farming civet cats for meat consumption. (Civet cats have been identified as the species that introduced SARS in 2003.)
Upon the first COVID outbreak, the Chinese government reversed its position, first shutting down the Wuhan animal market in December 2019. World Health Organizations and other external investigators also pointed to wildlife farms and animal markets as the entry point of the COVID virus. On February 20, 2020, China shut down all wildlife farms in the country, numbering around 20,000. The decision was widely hailed as a win for human health and animal welfare—although it must be said that the farmers were instructed to “bury, kill or burn them” as opposed to reintroducing them to the wild. In addition, there remained loop holes to continue breeding certain exempted species like silver foxes, minks, and raccoon dogs with a license. Animals bred for medicine, such as tigers (for bone) and rhinos (for horn) also remained out of this ban.
Unfortunately, China has just signaled that it was ready to return to wildlife farming in a new update that states that “farming with wildlife with the three values [ecological, economic, and social] doesn’t need to get approved.” The list covers 1,800 species that now can be farmed only with registration, such as: wolves, the red fox, Bengal leopard, the black-footed albatross, plovers, and woodpeckers. This means wildlife farming will resume in huge numbers, breeding wild animals in captivity—and often in abjectly cruel conditions. It also means the return to blurred boundaries for the poaching of endangered species, as wildlife farms provide a “laundering” front for individuals captured from the wild. It’s also sure to encourage poachers and traders of banned endangered species that wildlife protections are in general loosening.
China’s latest move is disheartening for animal advocates around the globe, as well as everyone who was impacted by the pandemic and wants to see the world become a safer and healthier place. Sharing this news and putting international pressure will be an important part of moving the needle. At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge and work with animal rights activists, conservation groups, and scientists within China who are against wildlife farming and trade. To lend your voice and support, check out organizations like Environmental Investigation Agency who are working with Chinese academics and NGOs to bring more rigorous protection of animals.
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Photo: courtesy of Jo-Anne MacArthur via Unsplash