For the past two weeks, China’s police have been raiding houses, restaurants and makeshift markets across the country, arresting nearly 700 people for breaking the temporary ban on catching, selling or eating wild animals.
Almost 40.000 animals, including squirrels, weasels and boars, were confiscated. The scale of the crackdown suggests that China’s taste for eating wildlife and using animal parts for medicinal purposes is not likely to disappear overnight, despite potential links to the new coronavirus.
Traders legally selling donkey, dog, deer, crocodile and other meat told Reuters they plan to get back to business as soon as the markets reopen.
“I’d like to sell once the ban is lifted,” said Gong Jian, who runs a wildlife store online and operates shops in China’s autonomous Inner Mongolia region. “People like buying wildlife. They buy for themselves to eat or give as presents because it is very presentable and gives you face.”
Gong said he was storing crocodile and deer meat in large freezers, but would have to kill all the quails he had been breeding as supermarkets were no longer buying his eggs and they cannot be eaten after freezing.
Scientists suspect, but have not proven, that the new coronavirus passed to humans from bats via pangolins, a small ant-eating mammal whose scales are highly prized in traditional Chinese medicine.
‘Animals are living for man, not sharing the earth with man’
Some of the earliest infections were found in people who had exposure to Wuhan’s seafood market, where bats, snakes, civets and other wildlife were sold. China temporarily shut down all such markets in January, warning that eating wild animals posed a threat to public health and safety.
That may not be enough to change tastes or attitudes that are deeply rooted in the country’s culture and history.
“In many people’s eyes, animals are living for man, not sharing the earth with man,” said Wang Song, a retired researcher of Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Permanent ban on trade in wildlife
The outbreak of the new coronavirus, which has killed more than 1600 people in China, revived a debate in the country about the use of wildlife for food and medicine.
Many academics, environmentalists and residents in China have joined international conservation groups in calling for a permanent ban on trade in wildlife and closure of the markets where wild animals are sold.
The online debate within China has heavily favored a permanent ban. “One bad habit is that we dare to eat anything,” said one commenter called Sun on a news discussion forum on the Chinese website Sina. “We must stop eating wildlife and those who do should be sentenced to jail.”
The breeding and trading of wild animals in China is supported by the government and is a source of profit for many people.
After the SARS outbreak in 2003, the National Forestry and Grassland Administration (NFGA) strengthened oversight of the wildlife business.
They licensed the legal farming and sale of 54 wild animals including civets, turtles and crocodiles. And they approved breeding of endangered species including bears, tigers and pangolins for environmental or conservation purposes.
However, animal activists describe the licensed farms as a cover for illegal wildlife trafficking, where animals are specifically bred to be consumed as food or medicine rather than released into the wild.
“They just use this premise to do illegal trading,” Zhou Jinfeng, head of China’s Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation, told Reuters. “There are no real pangolin farms in China, they just use the permits to do illegal things.”
The NFGA did not respond to requests for comment.
“The state forestry bureau has long been the main force supporting wildlife use,” said Peter Li, a China Policy Specialist for the Humane Society International. “It insists on China’s right to use wildlife resources for development purposes.”
Much of the farming and sale of wildlife takes place in rural or poorer regions under the blessing of local authorities who see trading as a boost for the local economy. State-backed television programs regularly show people farming animals, including rats, for commercial sale and their own consumption.
The United Nations estimates the global illegal wildlife trade is worth about $23 billion a year. China is by far the largest market, environmental groups say.