Activists fighting the wild animal trade in China say restrictions on sales at wet markets are pushing the dangerous trade underground.
- Two-thirds of initial COVID-19 cases were linked to a Wuhan marketplace
- In late February, China temporarily banned poaching, selling and eating wild animals
- Activists hope the ban becomes law, but fear it may push trade underground
But they are hopeful the global coronavirus pandemic will galvanise public anger within China against eating exotic species.
Next month, China’s Government will hold a delayed annual legislative session that is likely to see the country’s law on the wild animal trade strengthened.
But there are concerns it will not go far enough.
Australia and several Western countries are now pushing for an independent probe into how the virus started in the Chinese city of Wuhan, and the response from authorities.
China has strongly rejected the idea and said the origins of the virus are a matter for scientists to explore.
The Chinese wild animal trade remains in sharp focus due to the high number of early patients linked to a wet market in Wuhan.
Two-thirds of patients who arrived at hospital in Wuhan with the new disease in the initial weeks had some links to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market.
Scientists are still trying to unravel the mystery of COVID-19’s origins but, at this stage, some believe the disease may have jumped from an animal — perhaps a bat or a pangolin — to a human.
At least one vendor at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market is believed to have sold a wide range of species including peacocks, reptiles and hedgehogs.
The demand for exotic animal meat
Yu Yuexin is a long-time campaigner against the wild animal trade in China’s most populous province, Guangdong.
“At the moment, it’s a tight situation for wild animal sellers. They’re now only doing business with acquaintances they trust,” he told the ABC.
“They won’t sell to strangers.”
For years, Mr Yu has risked his safety to find and report people selling exotic and sometimes endangered animals for food at wet markets and restaurants in the province where the SARS outbreak began in 2003.
SARS, which has similar symptoms to COVID-19 and is also a coronavirus, was traced to a palm civet, a tree-dwelling animal which resembles a racoon.
Palm civets were found in a live-animal market in Guangdong at the time.
“I’ve had wild bird sellers and a dozen of their relatives come to my house and smash my windows. Many have threatened me,” he said.
He has filmed restaurants in Guangdong selling civets and has cut down nets designed to trap birds that end up on dinner plates.
“They’re not raised on antibiotics and hormones like farm animals.”
Liu Jianping, an official with the Shenzhen Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, said that the poultry, livestock and seafood available to consumers were sufficient.
“There is no evidence showing that wildlife is more nutritious than poultry and livestock,” Mr Liu was quoted as saying by the state-owned media Shenzhen Daily.
Isobel Zhang of animal rights group ACTAsia said there were other reasons why people preferred eating wildlife.
“I think people who eat wild animals are seeking novelty. It’s a kind of a subculture,” Ms Zhang said.
“After the outbreak, I’d expect the demand for wild animals to drop off as people realise how viruses can infect humans through close contact.”
China resists western anger over wet markets
Officials in Beijing have pushed back against Australian anger about the re-opening of wet markets, which were allowed to resume trading in mid-April.
Chinese officials have pointed out that the vast majority of markets in China only sell live seafood and possible poultry, but not live animals.
The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market that sold exotic animals and was linked to early cases of the virus in Wuhan is not among those re-opening.
Animal rights groups were thrilled when China’s Government issued a temporary ban in late February on poaching, selling and eating wild animals.
They are hopeful measures banning the “illegal” trade in wild animals will be confirmed in law next month.
“In the past, the law didn’t severely punish people who are eating and selling them. The criminal cost was very low,” said Shan Dai, a volunteer with the GDTB animal rights centre in Guangzhou.
“This new decision clearly provides what people can eat and what they can’t eat, it also provides the basis for exercising the restrictions.”
Fears a ban may push the live trade underground
Even if the measures go into effect, it is highly unlikely that the trade of exotic animals and the risk that poses to human health will be eliminated.
Animals like the endangered pangolin might now legally be banned from dinner tables, but their scales remain highly sought after due to their supposed benefits in Chinese traditional medicine.
The law will restrict the use of wild animals to “scientific research, medical use and display,” but some worry there is a risk this would be exploited, with animals still going on to be trafficked for food.
But if legal threats are not enough, those still indulging their taste for exotic animals will face something harder to evade: public scrutiny.
“If someone still dares to sell wild animals, they would lose the whole family’s fortune,” she said.