The identification of the wild animal trade as the possible cause of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic triggered mounting criticisms of its existence from a wide spectrum of society. The Chinese Government reacted swiftly to this rising pressure and took strong legislative steps:

On 26 January, the forestry, market supervision, and agricultural authorities announced a nationwide ban on the trade in wild animals, and placed captive-breeding facilities under quarantine for the duration of the epidemic. These have been described as the most stringent restrictions ever enforced on China’s wild animal trade. However, the ban had a time limit. A similar crackdown was seen 17 years ago during the SARS epidemic. With China now tackling another major virus outbreak, demands rose for far-reaching policy changes. On 24 February, the National People’s Congress, China’s top legislators, issued a Decision, which permanently banned wild animal trade and consumption. As a signatory to the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), China has reported these important legal steps to the parties.

Although the Decision lacks the actionable details of a law, it is a landmark step towards a blanket ban. In terms of long-term legislative and systemic changes, the legislators promised to prioritize the modification of the Wild Animal Law in 2020 and to amend other relevant policies. Chinese experts and representatives of environmental non-governmental organisations have developed a series of recommendations for the policy changes and a joint statement calling for an end to the trade, saying it should be treated as a “public safety issue.” The state-owned media also launched an all-pronged campaign calling upon the public to support the ban, which has gained widespread praise from the public.

One of the central approaches for regulating the utilisation of wildlife in China is the usage of “whitelists.” Any terrestrial animal that is not included on such a list, is in principle banned from utilisation, including for food and medicine purposes. In April, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs issued a draft of a new whitelist called the National Livestock and Poultry Genetic Resources Directory for consultation. The list was shorter than expected, but some experts have pointed out potential loopholes in China’s wildlife regulations. For instance, five frog species have been recategorized from terrestrial to aquatic and are therefore excluded from the recent ban. It is yet to be seen whether reptiles currently still managed as protected terrestrial animals will be similarly transferred.

Legal artificial breeding of wildlife is a vast industry, which has provided jobs to 14 million people in China before the COVID-19 outbreak. With China now cracking down on wildlife consumption, the industry will see significant downsizing and a large number of farmers in impoverished and remote areas may struggle to find other ways to earn a living. Experts have called for the government to compensate the affected farmers for their losses or to support them in moving to other industries. The first compensation scheme emerged on 15 May in Hunan Province. A compensation rate was set for each species in an initial group of 14 species that can no longer be farmed. With rates lower than market prices and a stalling economy, the support provided in moving affected wildlife farmers to other industries will play a vital role.

Chinese society at large as well as the government have gained much more awareness after the COVID-19 outbreak. Legal steps seem promising, and enforcement has been greatly strengthened following the outbreak. However, not all recent wildlife-related measures in China should be attributed to pandemic responses. Already before COVID-19, China’s state insurers had decided to stop covering pangolin medicines, a decision which came into effect in January this year. On 5 June, World Environment Day, all pangolin species in China were then raised from Class II to Class I protected animals, the highest level available, thus banning their use in medicine. CITES reported positively on China’s step to gear up the protection status of pangolins in a show of far-reaching international recognition of China’s actions. Keeping this momentum to accelerate legal changes and to follow through with stringent action on the ground will be key to effective wildlife regulation for human wellbeing and biodiversity conservation in China.

China geared up the protection status of pangolins recently, Credit: Wikimedia