After months of battling the deadly novel coronavirus epidemic, China has slowly contained the virus and went on to make the next step: banning wildlife consumption across the country.

The temporary ban was imposed by the government late February as thousands of COVID-19 cases surged in Wuhan, where the global pandemic was suspected to have originated from. It is still unclear which animal has transferred the virus to humans, but experts suspected it came either from bats, snakes or pangolins that were sold in the wildlife market.

The ban is expected to become law within the year and China has pledged to revise its laws governing all wildlife trade, which is estimated to be at US$74 billion, according to a 2017 Chinese Academy of Engineering report. However, this report was focused on wildlife meat consumption only.

This means that fur and leather industry, and trade in animal parts can still operate as usual, which means trafficking of endangered or protected species will still continue as reported by Al Jazeera.

Delicacy and traditional medicine

Many markets in China sell wild and exotic animals as a delicacy and for traditional medicine. The Wuhan seafood market is just one of many, but it became the center of the novel coronavirus outbreak.

From its name ‘seafood market,’ many people would have assumed it only sells fishes or crabs, but they are selling more than that.

In a footage obtained by CNN from Weibo, snakes, raccoon dogs, porcupines and deer were just some of the animals crammed inside cages that have been obtained by vendors. Sometimes, they butcher the animals in front of buyers. The video has since been deleted by government censors.

Scientists believe it is where COVID-19 likely first spread to humans, which has now infected more than 94,000 people and killed more than 3,200 around the world.

The only barrier from totally banning wildlife trade in China is President Xi Jinping strongly promoting the use of traditional medicine, which is estimated to be worth US$130 billion.

“Traditional medicine is a treasure of Chinese civilization embodying the wisdom of the nations and its people,” Xi said according to an October 2019 report by state-run media China Daily.

The new ban was unclear, even making an exception made for wild animals used in traditional Chinese medicine. Use of wildlife for it is not illegal, rather must be “strictly monitored.” Monitoring and penalties for inadequate protection for the animals is also not stated, leaving illegal traders to still abuse wildlife and exotics.

“(Currently), the law bans the eating of pangolins but doesn’t ban the use of their scales in traditional Chinese medicine,” wildlife campaigner Aron White told CNN in an interview. “The impact of that is that overall, the consumers are receiving mixed messages.”

US and Chinese researchers recently published a study in International Health, where they surveyed residents in China’s southern provinces who have been eating wild and exotic animals. A 40-year-old peasant farmer said that eating bats help prevent cancer, while another man said it can improve one’s vitality.

Change in culture

Though the Chinese government implemented a total ban on eating wild and exotic animals, it would be hard to fully end the trade in the country as consumption and use of wild animals for food, traditional medicine, clothing and even as pets run deep in their cultural identity.

They tried to ban the trade in 2003, too, when they culled a large number of civets after discovering that they likely transferred the SARS virus to humans. Selling of snakes was also banned after the outbreak, which killed almost 800 people and infected more than 8,000 others across the world. But just after a six-month ban, those animals are now still used in parts of China.

Eating Shanzhen Haiwei (translated as “treasures from the mountains and flavors of the seas”) is a folklore symbol of wealth and health in China. So if a person could afford to eat monkey brains and bear’s paws, they are considered rich and elite, while the ordinary people turn to the less expensive animals such as cats, dogs, and even rats.

“Wild animals are expensive. If you treat somebody with wild animals, it will be considered that you’re paying tribute,” college student Annie Huang told CNN in an interview, noting that a single peacock costs 800 yuan (US$144).

Though China’s latest ban wiped out all its wet markets, Chinese media reports suggest it is just “the tip of the iceberg.” They reported that traffickers turn to social media platforms to sell their products.

In the first month of the ban, e-commerce platforms managed to remove, delete and blocks all information related to about 140,000 wildlife products and closed down about 17,000 accounts that were associated with the illegal trade.

“The trade might lay low for a few months… but after a while, probably in a few months, people would very possibly come back again,” Huang added.

Academics from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and leading universities issued a joint public statement and called for an end to the illegal wildlife trade.

“The vast majority of people within China react to the abuse of wildlife in the way people in other countries do – with anger and revulsion,” said Aron White, wildlife campaigner at the Environmental Investigation Agency. “I think we should listen to those voices that are calling for change and support those voices.”

Leo Poon, a Hong Kong virologist, said the government could either end the wildlife trade or simply find safer option. Meanwhile, Ecohealth Alliance president Peter Daszak said if Chinese authorities do make the trade officially illegal, it would wipe the wet markets clean in the cities, but soon, black markets in rural communities would pop out.

“Then we’ll see [virus] outbreaks begin not in markets this time, but in rural communities,” Daszak said.

If China is truly to ban the wildlife trade, Poon said its effectiveness would solely depend on the government’s willpower to enforce the law. “Culture cannot be changed overnight, it takes time.”

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