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The scales of justice

David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation

Pangolins, along with bats and civets have been put forward as the cause of the Novel Coronavirus COVID-19. Pangolins are one of the most trafficked mammals in the world. It is estimated that 300 pangolins are taken from the wild every day, to supply illegal wildlife markets in the Far East. David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation (DSWF) is working to help protect pangolins and reduce the demand for its meat and scales on the black market.

The Novel Coronavirus is said to have made the transition from animal to human in China’s live-wildlife markets in Wuhan.

Wuhan’s live-wildlife markets and the conditions animals were kept in, created the perfect storm for zoonotic diseases in which to incubate.

While scientists are scrambling to find the animal responsible to prevent an outbreak from happening again and to apportion blame, the tragic loss of human life and the beginnings of a pandemic has brought a much-needed shift in China’s wildlife laws but is it enough?

China’s wildlife laws thrown onto the scales due to Novel Coronavirus

On February 24, 2020, the unthinkable happened – the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress made a series of amendments to China’s wildlife laws, prohibiting the sale of wildlife as a food source. CLICK HERE to read the decisions.

The trade and conservation of wildlife in China is regulated by the Wildlife Protection Law. Previously loopholes in these laws allow for the commercial sale of products made from protected species. A consequence of this has been the captive breeding of wildlife and the illegal wildlife trade across borders.

Chinks in the pangolin’s armour

What you will note, is that the changes to China’s wildlife laws, however, do not prohibit the use of wildlife parts for traditional medicine or ornamental objects. It just mentions the banning of terrestrial wildlife as food.

Other points of concern in the current interpretation are:

  • These new decisions do not include animals classified under ‘livestock and poultry.’
  • The amendments only refer to terrestrial mammals. Many aquatic and plant species are also endangered.
  • The decisions mention the banning of farmed (or commercial breeding) of wildlife for food but neglect to mention how the government will dispose of these animals or compensate the investors.

Many conservation organisations, who DSWF work closely with, are saying the changes to the Wildlife Protection Law is not enough. We should be using the opportunity, born from the tragic outbreak, to call for a total ban on the commercial trade in all threatened wildlife and

to strengthen law enforcement efforts to crack down on illegal markets and criminal syndicates.

While these changes to wildlife laws reflect a positive shift in policy, it does not prevent humans from coming into contact, and consuming wildlife (thus preventing disease) as wild animals are still being killed, processes and consumed for medicinal purposes.

If current interpretations of these new laws are correct it means the consumption of pangolin foetus soup, a delicacy in China, is now illegal. However, the use of traditional Chinese medicine made from pangolin scales is still legal, therefore mitigating the false narrative around limiting consumption. Other endangered species still effected by traditional medicine markets are tigers, lions, leopard, bears and rhino.

Up until now, little has been done by local law officials to prosecute illegal wildlife traffickers in certain parts of Asia. These new decisions do not mention how apprehended wildlife traffickers will be dealt with, nor what happens to the stockpiles or seized products. Unless these laws are implemented and traffickers brought to justice, little will change for pangolins and other affected species. Another grey area is the breeding of wildlife for commercial gain, something we have seen to have devastating impacts on wild populations in the case of commercial tiger farms.

Policy, pangolins, and pandemonium

While this is a positive step for a country that has long abused animal rights and the serious threat which domestic markets play to the ultimate survival of a species, Novel Coronavirus has given China the opportunity to be the Zeus of conservation – to be a real Change Maker, and potentially alter the course of natural history, by truly re-evaluating their wildlife laws. It is all thunder and no lightning however unless these laws are acted on and address far wider consumptive behaviours.

Novel Coronavirus is now a pandemic, there is pandemonium in the press and while the loss of human life is tragic, hopefully, some good can come out of this for the pangolin and other endangered species. It’s a steppingstone in turning the tide of extinction.

In addition, to protecting species on the ground, DSWF is also involved in the international policy arena fighting to end the trade of ivory and other endangered wildlife products, such as pangolins.

Image credits: Wesley Hartmann, Will Riley and Ulrico Grech-Cumbo

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