As China’s government prepares new laws to ban the trade and consumption of wild animals, local action plans published this week suggest that the country’s fur trade and traditional medicine sectors will continue as usual.
After identifying exotic animals traded in a Wuhan market as the most likely source of COVID-19, China put a temporary ban on the wildlife trade in late January. Parliament followed up in February with a resolution promising to look at a permanent ban in law.
Though legislative changes will be discussed at the national session of parliament starting on Friday, regions are already taking action to implement the February ruling.
Loopholes to continue breeding wild animals
Hunan and Jiangxi, both major wildlife breeding provinces, promised to release captive animals into the wild wherever possible and will pay hunters and breeders to switch to other professions. But they left the fur trade untouched and included loopholes allowing traders to stay in business if their products are used for science or medicine.
“There is nothing to stop farmers continuing business as usual but pivoting to selling their farmed wild animals for traditional Chinese medicine instead,” said Peter Li, China policy specialist for the animal welfare organization Humane Society International.
Since January, regulators have cracked down on trade in wildlife wet markets and online e-commerce platforms. Authorities in Shanghai closed shops and took action against dozens of online stores selling lizards, peacocks and arctic foxes.
But some animals associated with Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) remain for sale. Traders said they can still breed bats and sell their poop for use in traditional medicine.
China promised to ban wildlife consumption for food while allowing it to continue for medicinal purposes. Still, in TCM, the distinction doesn’t apply: people eat wild animals because of supposed medical benefits. “Since the 1980s, eating wild animals has been promoted in TCM remedies for such things as skin health, fertility, longevity and fighting cancer. It’s undoubtedly a powerful lobby,” Li said.
Lawmakers have proposed rules forcing producers to find synthetic replacements, saying the sector’s dependence on outdated and cruel practices undermines quality as well as the prospects of promoting the industry overseas.
Musk and tiger bone have already been replaced by artificial ingredients, but firms say they are still years away from producing viable alternatives to bear bile.
Bear bile is sourced from captive breeding facilities. They’re still in practice. To get the bile from a bear, surgery must be done to insert a tube in the gallbladder. The bear can then be ‘milked’ for its bile. It leaves the bear scarred and in terrible pain. At these farms, bears stay in small steel cages where they can’t sit up straight or turn around.
It remains unclear how the TCM industry will be affected by new legislation.
Watch the interview The Animal Reader had with Peter Li about the wildlife wet markets in China and the use of animals in Traditional Chinese Medicine.