China’s mixed messages on wildlife trade since Covid-19

The consumption of game has been banned, but many species are still threatened by traditional Chinese medicine.

The outbreak of COVID-19 and its global impact has put the illegal trade in wildlife in the spotlight. With the origin of the disease associated with a meat market in Wuhan, China, the world was once again reminded of the country’s taste for game, which led to the call to end the illegal trade.

In a move that surprised many people, the Chinese parliament decided in February 2020 to ban the consumption of game and close meat markets. While conservationists celebrated the news, the Chinese government upgraded the protection status of pangolins to Class 1 – the highest level of protection, including pandas. Pangolin scales have also been removed from the country’s official list of ingredients approved for use in traditional Chinese medicine.

This is an important step forward in the fight against the illegal trade in wildlife, but comes with a notable caveat. Despite the ban on the consumption of game, many species can still be used for other purposes, such as traditional medicine, ornaments and pets.

A few weeks after the pangolin scales were removed from the traditional medicine list, China’s National Health Commission recommended an injection containing carrier bile, known as a Tan Re Qing injection, to treat patients with coronavirus. The ban on game consumption and at the same time the promotion of traditional medicine emphasize the double standards of China’s approach to dealing with the illegal game trade.

Despite China’s ban on wildlife consumption, many species can still be used for other purposes

Traditional Chinese medicine is practiced throughout Asia and is one of the drivers for the illegal trade in wildlife. Endangered species such as rhinos and pangolins have been poached in Africa to meet the growing demand for these products in Asia. According to a 2019 ADM Capital report, the wildlife trade has been dominated by demand from the traditional Chinese medicine industry for the past ten years.

As a US $ 43.6 billion a year, traditional medicine enjoys support not only in China but also in about 180 countries around the world. Yet there is little evidence that the game species used in this medicine have any medicinal benefits at all. This has led to numerous controversies by proponents of traditional Chinese and Western medicine.

In 2006, Professor Zhang Gongyao, a Chinese philosopher, publicly advocated the ban on traditional medicine in favor of biomedicine. Gongyao argued that traditional Chinese medicine is a ‘pseudoscience and should not be part of public health and research’. Numerous prominent scholars in the field have refuted his findings and the Chinese government is promoting traditional medicine as a science.

Despite the apparent conflict, traditional medicine coexists with Western medical systems in China. The former is used for the treatment of chronic diseases and for maintaining health while being used on serious diseases.

The ban on all forms of traditional Chinese medicine will not stop the illegal trade in wildlife

In 2019, the World Health Organization adopted the 11th edition of the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, which for the first time contains a chapter on traditional Chinese medicine. This has drawn sharp criticism from medical practitioners worldwide who have called for stricter regulation of the practice.

The ban on all forms of traditional medicine is unlikely to address the illegal trade in wildlife. The ban on a cultural practice that has existed for centuries is not only fruitless, but undoubtedly impossible.

In her book Poached, Rachel Nuwer emphasizes the established beliefs of users and their view of the illegal trade. ‘Families have been using rhino horn for many generations … and it takes time to change their attitude,’ explains Hoài, a businessman interviewed in the book. “If a man believes that a rhino horn can treat his disease, then harm to nature is nothing.”

However, double standards as indicated by the contradictory messages of the Chinese government do little to address the issue. In fact, they create loopholes that are exploited by criminal syndicates involved in the illegal trade in wildlife. The Chinese animal protection laws, for example, do not clearly define which species fall under wildlife and are covered by the ban.

China’s conflicting messages create loopholes exploited by criminal syndicates

Clear and specific domestic laws are needed that cover endangered species and prohibit the trade and use of these animals for purposes such as traditional Chinese medicine. These laws must be applied at the local level where traditional medicine is applied. The lack of enforcement and implementation of policy is an ongoing challenge in the fight against the illegal trade in wildlife.

There is no doubt that traditional Chinese medicine – a healthcare system that has existed for centuries – is here to stay and is spreading around the world. However, respect for cultural beliefs should not be at the expense of eradicating Africa’s biological heritage.

Richard Chelin and Mohamed Daghar, researchers, ENACT, ISS

This article was first published by the ENACT project. ENACT is funded by the European Union (EU). The content of this article is the sole responsibility of the author and can under no circumstances be reflected as the position of the EU.


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