China sets a temporary ban on wildlife trade. But could it be permanent?

As authorities scramble to contain the coronavirus, China has decided to temporarily ban the trade of wild animals in markets and online. The move was celebrated, especially as the virus seems to have emerged from an animal market.

But why not make it a permanent ban, conservationists and scientists are asking?

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The coronavirus outbreak has already reached a death toll of 132 people, with over 7,000 cases reported worldwide. There’s evidence that the virus moved to humans in a food market in Wuhan, China, which sells food and living animals alongside other products.

The market, now closed down as the source of the infection, had a wild animal section that sold live and slaughtered species, including wolf pups, scorpions, bamboo rats, squirrels, and salamanders, among others. That’s a fairly common practice across China, and one that has been criticized in the past. It’s not just the potential of outbreaks and hygiene, but conservationists have repeatedly spoken against China’s wildlife trade.

It’s not the first time China has issued a temporary wildlife sale ban.

Following SARS, the acute respiratory syndrome in 2003 caused by a similar coronavirus, China had also set up a temporary ban on the sale of wild animals in markets, with scientists warning of the risks of allowing people to trade and eat wild meat.

But after the disease was handled, the markets opened up.

China adopted in 1998 a wildlife protection law but hasn’t updated the list of protected wild animals for three decades, with critics questioning authorities not doing much to enforce it. The China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF), one of China’s key wildlife organizations, is pushing for a new law to protect biodiversity and safeguard wildlife.

Jinfeng Zhou, CBCGDF’s secretary-general, told The Guardian that the ban failed to address the root cause of the outbreak, poor regulation and high levels of illegal trade. “This temporary ban is not enough. The trade should be banned indefinitely, at least until new rules are introduced,” he said.

China allows 54 wild species to be bred on farms and then sold for consumption. The list includes hamsters, turtles, and crocodiles, among others. Jinfeng said many wild animals are poached and brought to state license farms. There’s no actual figure on the number of markets in China, but experts estimate there could be hundreds.

Back in 2014, a study surveyed 1.000 people in five Chinese cities, finding different practices. More than 80% of those surveyed in Guangzhou said to have eaten wildlife in the previous year, while in Shanghai the figure dropped to 14%. More than 50% of those surveyed nationwide said wild animals should not be eaten.

Christian Walzer, the chief global veterinarian at the U.S.-based Wildlife Conservation Society, told National Geographic that the chaos of the trade-in China enables the spread of diseases from animals to humans, known as zoonotic. Wild animals can carry viruses that “in a normal world wouldn’t come in contact with humans,” he said.

“If these markets persist, and human consumption of illegal and unregulated wildlife persists, then the public will continue to face heightened risks from emerging new viruses, potentially more lethal, and the source of future pandemic spread,” Walzer added.

Up to 70% of the zoonotic diseases come from wildlife, according to Erin Sorrel, assistant research professor at Georgetown University. HIV, Ebola, and SARS are on the list of diseases that have been transmitted from wildlife to humans, causing global outbreaks.

Nevertheless, implementing a permanent ban would be tricky. Peter Li, a China policy specialist at Humane Society International, told National Geographic the State Forestry and Grassland Department, which gives licenses to wildlife breeders, “has been a spokesperson for the wildlife interest.” In other words, the state is keen on supporting this trade, rather than banning it.

At the same time, people have to be on board with the idea of a permanent ban in order to be effective, Caroline Dingle, a biologist at Hong Kong University, said. “People need to believe that consuming wild animals is bad for them personally for any ban to work long-term,” she added.

China will host at the end of the year the key meeting of the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) in the city of Kumming. The goal will be to seat a new global framework for the protection of biodiversity. There are now over 8.000 species at the risk of extinction because of illegal trading, according to a 2019 paper in Science.

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