Nearly 20,000 wildlife farmsraising species including peacocks, civet cats, porcupines, ostriches, wild geese and boar have been shut down across China in the wake of the coronavirus, in a move that has exposed the hitherto unknown size of the wildlife farm industry.
Until a few weeks ago wildlife farming was still being promoted by government agencies as an easy way for rural Chinese people to get rich.
But the Covid-19 outbreak, which has now led to over 1,800 deaths and more than 72,000 known infections, is thought to have originated in wildlife sold at a market in Wuhan in early December, prompting a massive rethink by authorities on how to manage the trade.
China issued a temporary ban on wildlife trade to curb the spread of the virus at the end of January and began a widespread crackdown on breeding facilities in early February.
The country’s top legislative officials are now rushing to amend the country’s wildlife protection law and possibly restructure regulations on the use of wildlife for food and traditional Chinese medicine.
The current version of the law is seen as problematic by wildlife conservation groups because it focuses on utilisation of wildlife rather than its protection.
“The coronavirus epidemic is swiftly pushing China to reevaluate its relationship with wildlife,” Steve Blake, chief representative of WildAid in Beijing, told the Guardian. “There is a high level of risk from this scale of breeding operations both to human health and to the impacts on populations of these animals in the wild.”
Further instructions from the National People’s Congress are expected next week to give authorities more tools to enforce the ban and restrict trade until the law is amended.
For the past few years China’s leadership has pushed the idea that “wildlife domestication” should be a key part of rural development, eco-tourism and poverty alleviation. A 2017 report by the Chinese Academy of Engineering on the development of the wildlife farming industry valued the wildlife-farming industry those operations at 520bn yuan, or £57bn.
Just weeks before the outbreak, China’s State Forestry and Grassland Administration (SFGA) was still actively encouraging citizens to get into farming wildlife such as civet cats – a species pinpointed as a carrier of Sars, a disease similar to Covid-19. The SFGA regulates both farming and trade in terrestrial wildlife, and quotas of wildlife products – such as pangolin scales – allowed to be used by the Chinese medicine industry.
“Why are civet cats still encouraged to [be eaten] after the Sars outbreak in 2003? It’s because the hunters, operators, practitioners need that. How can they achieve that? They urged the government to support them under the pretext of economic development,” Jinfeng Zhou, secretary-general of the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF), told the Guardian.
But little was known about the scale of the wildlife farm industry before the coronavirus outbreak, with licensing mainly regulated by provincial and local-level forestry bureaus that do not divulge full information about the breeding operations under their watch. A report from state-run Xinhua news agency on 17 February revealed that from 2005–2013 the forestry administration only issued 3,725 breeding and operation licenses at the national level.
But since the outbreak at least 19,000 farms have been shut down around the country, including about 4,600 in Jilin province, a major centre for traditional Chinese medicine. About 3,900 wildlife-farming operations were shuttered in Hunan province, 2,900 in Sichuan, 2,300 in Yunnan, 2,000 in Liaoning, and 1,000 in Shaanxi.
There is little detail available about the animals farmed across China, but local press reports mention civet cats, bamboo rats, ostriches, wild boar, sika deer, foxes, ostriches, blue peacocks, turkeys, quails, guinea fowl, wild geese, mallard ducks, red-billed geese, pigeons, and ring-necked pheasants.
Neither do reports offer much detail about the shutdowns and what is happening to the animals, although Blake said he does not think animals are being culled, due to issues over compensation.
Chen Hong, a peacock farmer in Liuyang, Hunan, said she is concerned about her losses and whether she will get compensation after her operations were suspended on 24 January.
“We’re very worried about the farm’s future,” she added. “The shutdown has resulted in a loss of 400,000–500,000 yuan (£44,000–55,000) in sales, and if they decide to put an outright ban on raising peacocks, we’ll lose even more, at least a million yuan(£110,000).”
Appetite for ‘warm meat’ drives risk of disease in Hong Kong and China
Besides being used for Chinese medicine, much of the meat from the wildlife trade is sold through online platforms or to “wet markets” like the one where the Covid-19 outbreak is thought to have started in Wuhan.
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