Farmers in two provinces of China are being offered cash to quit breeding exotic animals as pressure grows to stop the illegal wildlife trade.
The deadly coronavirus, first reported in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, is widely believed to have passed from bats to people before spreading worldwide.
Authorities have pledged to buy out breeders for the first time, in an attempt to stop the sale of wild animals for food, animal rights activists say.
In recent months, China has banned the sale of wild animals for food, but the trade remains legal for other purposes, including research and traditional medicine.
Two central provinces, Hunan and Jiangxi, have outlined details of a buyout program to help farmers switch to alternative ways to make money.
One time payment per kilogram of a wild animal
Hunan set out a compensation scheme to persuade breeders to keep other animals or produce tea and herbal medicines. Authorities will evaluate farms and inventories and offer a one-off payment of 120 yuan ($16) per kilogram of rat snake, king rat snake and cobra, and 75 yuan ($16) for a kilogram of bamboo rat.
Neighboring Jiangxi province has also released plans to help farmers dispose of animals, as well as financial aid. The state-run Jiangxi Daily newspaper reported last week that the province has more than 2,300 licensed breeders, mostly farming wild animals for food. Their stock is worth about 1.6 billion yuan ($225 million), the report said.
Animal rights group Humane Society International (HSI) said Hunan and Jiangxi are major wildlife breeding provinces, with Jiangxi seeing a rapid expansion of the trade over the last decade.
HSI China policy specialist Peter Li said that similar plans should be rolled out across the country. But he cautioned that Hunan’s proposals leave room for farmers to continue breeding exotic animals as long as they are not sent to food markets.
The province’s plan also does not include many wild animals bred for fur, traditional Chinese medicine, or entertainment.
China is moving in the right direction
Almost two decades ago, Beijing implemented measures to ban the trade and consumption of wild animals after the SARS outbreak. But these measures failed to bring the trade to a halt.
Li said Chinese authorities are nevertheless now moving in the right direction.
“In the past 20 years, a lot of people have been telling the Chinese government to buy out certain wildlife breeding operations, for example bear (bile) farming,” he said. “This is the first time that the Chinese government actually decided to do it, which opens a precedent… (for when) other production needs to be phased out.”
Watch an interview we had with Peter Li about the wildlife wet market in China.