A temporary ban on wildlife markets in China to curb the spread of coronavirus is “not enough” and should be made permanent, a prominent Chinese environmental leader has told the Guardian.
Echoing calls from experts worldwide who have denounced the trade for its damaging impact on biodiversity as well as the spread of disease, Jinfeng Zhou, secretary general of the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF), said the ban failed to address the root cause of the outbreak, which was poor regulation and high levels of illegal trade.
The flu-like virus is believed to have emerged from Huanan seafood market in the industrial city of Wuhan where wild animals such as snakes, porcupines and pangolins were kept alive in small cages while waiting to be sold. The national ban means the trade of wild animals will not be allowed in markets, restaurants or on e-commerce sites until the coronavirus outbreak ends, Chinese officials said on Sunday.
Zhou told the Guardian: “This temporary ban is not enough. The trade should be banned indefinitely, at least until new rules are introduced. We have had similar diseases caused by illegal wildlife trafficking and if we don’t ban the trade these diseases will happen again.”
China has a wildlife protection law that was adopted in 1988 but the list of protected wild animals has not been updated for three decades and critics say the authorities do little to enforce it. The CBCGDF – which was founded in 1985 and is one of China’s oldest wildlife organisations – is lobbying for a new biodiversity protection law to properly safeguard the country’s wildlife.
Zhou said: “The announcement [on Sunday] lacked clear regulations on management, control and punishment. If there are no rules, there are no rules – there must be a set of responsibilities in order for officials to control the trade.”
The temporary ban has put the spotlight on China’s poorly regulated wildlife trade, which is driven by the country’s appetite for traditional medicines and exotic foods. Before Huanan seafood market was closed on 1 January, it contained 30 species of animal, including live wolf pups, salamanders, golden cicadas, civets and bamboo rats.
Animals sold in these markets are often kept in filthy conditions and left to fester in their own waste, which means they incubate diseases that can then spill into human populations. Similar markets are found all over the country and have been the source of outbreaks in the past.
Dr Christian Walzer, chief global veterinarian at for the Wildlife Conservation Society, said the temporary ban was an important first step in making China’s wildlife trade permanently illegal.
“Humans are getting sick from eating or being exposed to wildlife in these markets; wildlife populations are being depleted as they are poached and hunted for these markets; and economies and the poor are harmed as the mass culling of animals in response to these outbreaks increase the cost of basic animal protein (domesticated farm animals like chickens and pigs) that hit the poor the hardest.”
In 2002–3, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) – which is a type of coronavirus – spread across China and went on to kill 800 people worldwide. It resulted in a temporary ban on wild animal markets, and bats were later found to be the source. Chinese government medical advisers have identified badgers, snakes and rats as possible sources of the latest outbreak.
However, the current wildlife trade ban will have no impact on curbing the spread of the virus, according to Prof James Wood, head of veterinary medicine at the University of Cambridge. Evidence suggests it was a “single spillover event to humans, followed by human to human transmission”, he said.
While most people would strongly support bans on the marketing of live wild animals, it is not always simple to implement overnight bans on well-established types of trade, according to Wood.
“Jinfeng Zhou makes statements that are highly informed by detailed knowledge of the situation regarding wildlife markets in China,” he said. “It is important that clear frameworks are developed and implemented, as otherwise it could be possible for wild-caught animals to be sold at markets that have been developed for animals bred in captivity.”
The temporary ban comes as China prepares to host the major Convention on Biological Diversity in Kunming this October, which is a chance for world leaders to agree a new action plan to stop global extinctions in the next decade. Globally 8,775 species are at risk of extinction as a result of illegal trading, according to a 2019 paper published in Science.
Steven Galster, founder of the anti-wildlife-trafficking group Freeland, said: “China is to be congratulated for taking such a bold move to ban the wildlife trade and we should encourage China to keep this ban in place permanently. A sustained ban will save human lives, and contribute to a recovery of wildlife populations worldwide.”
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