March 10, 2021

Law in the Time of Corona: Wildlife Law Reform in China

Andrew Schatz

The convergence of two crises—COVID-19 and global wildlife extinction—has illuminated the need to reform our laws and change our relationship with nature to preserve global biodiversity and prevent the next pandemic.

According to the United Nations, one million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, as a result of human activity. The primary contributors to this decline are changes in land and sea use (farming, logging, habitat encroachment); direct exploitation of species (poaching, hunting, overfishing, trafficking); climate change, pollution, and invasive species.

At the same time, our growing destruction and encroachment into natural areas and contact with wildlife has increased our risk of exposure to zoonotic diseases. It is estimated that 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) are caused by animal to human transmission (zoonosis), with wildlife increasingly being the vector. The scientific community has largely recognized three means of zoonotic disease spillover from animals to humans: (1) deforestation and habitat destruction; (2) wildlife trade and consumption; and (3) farmed animals. Our destruction and fragmentation of forests and rapid land use change are increasingly bringing people into contact with animals harboring disease. Consumption of wildlife as bushmeat, farmed, or through illegal trade and markets, also increases our exposure to EIDs. Most recent pandemics have been connected to zoonotic transmission, including Ebola, SARS, and COVID-19—often originating in bats and spilling over to humans through an intermediary, with the latter two originating in China and likely transmitted through the wildlife trade. Likewise, livestock represent a critical reservoir for emergent diseases, such as H5N1 influenza (bird flu) and H1N1 influenza (swine flu).

In response, several nations, including China, have begun the process to reform their wildlife laws to reduce the risk of future pandemics and save wild species from extinction. Even before the advent of COVID-19, China’s wildlife laws underwent significant changes as recently as 2016. These revisions to China’s Wildlife Protection Law (WPL) mandated confiscation of illegal wildlife products, enhanced protections for wildlife habitat, and provided for significantly harsher fines for the illegal hunting, breeding, trade, use, transport, and food production of endangered wildlife. Nonetheless, the law permitted captive breeding of numerous wildlife species (e.g., bears, tigers), and effectively promoted the consumption of many wildlife species as food or their use in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Critics have maintained that such uses of wildlife led to unhygienic health practices creating opportunities for zoonosis, abuse of captive wildlife, and cover for the illegal wildlife trade under legally sanctioned activity. Such laws enabled continued sale of wildlife at “wet markets”––markets selling fresh meat, fish, produce, but also exotic wildlife species. These markets host unsanitary conditions, where a messy mix of bodily fluids and the presence of multiple live and dead animal species in close proximity create a fertile ground for viral transmission from animal to animal or animal to humans.

In January 2020, following the emergence of COVID-19 and its suspected link to wildlife or wildlife markets, the Chinese government announced a temporary ban on wildlife trade throughout the country. While many wet markets were initially shut down, they were later allowed to reopen, subject to a pending ban on the sale of wildlife as food.

On February 24, 2020, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress issued a decision announcing the country’s intent to strengthen the WPL, ban the consumption of terrestrial wildlife as food (including captive bred species), increase penalties for violations, seriously crack down on the illegal wildlife trade, and promote behavior change and educational awareness.

In response, the Chinese government announced measures to set restrictions on what species could be farmed as food. Before the outbreak, it was legal to sell 54 species in China including pangolins and civets—as long as these were raised on farms. This made it difficult to distinguish between legal and illegal wildlife in wet markets and enforcement was lax. In April 2020, China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs (MARA) announced its plans to reduce the number of permissible species for food consumption to approximately 20, notably excluding dogs, civets, and pangolins. While these measures amount to a significant improvement in efforts to reduce consumption of wild animals, MARA reclassified certain species of “wildlife” (governed by the WPL) to “livestock and poultry” (governed by more lax rules on consumption by the Animal Husbandry Law). Fox, mink, raccoon dog, deer, ostrich, and many species of bird, among others, are thus categorized as livestock rather than wildlife under the Animal Husbandry Resource List.

In October 2020, China’s National Forestry and Grasslands Administration (NFGA) announced its proposed revisions to the WPL, which may be approved as soon as March 2021. Most notably, the law would officially ban the consumption of terrestrial wildlife as food. The proposed WPL revisions also provide for enhanced law enforcement. It significantly increases penalties, places violators’ criminal information on the social credit system, imposes lifetime trading bans for offenders in serious cases, gives authorities the ability to close locations conducting illegal trade, and imposes new obligations on transport and mail service companies to ensure any products in their possession comply with the law. The law also provides for enhanced coordination between local and federal wildlife and law enforcement authorities, while creating joint mechanisms to monitor, investigate, and prosecute major wildlife crimes.

Despite these improvements, the law leaves many of the prior concerns unaddressed. Although banning the consumption of almost all wildlife as food eliminates one pathway for the exploitation of endangered species and resulting risk of zoonotic disease transmission, it does nothing to address those risks from the captive breeding or farming of wildlife and animals for TCM. For example, the proposed law still maintains exemptions from prohibition on the sale, purchase, and use of certain endangered species with respect to “scientific research, captive breeding, public exhibition or performances, heritage conservation or other special purposes.” Even more concerning, the law permits authorities to approve “where it is necessary,” the use of “wild-animals for non-food purposes, such as scientific research, medicine, exhibition or other special purposes.” These exemptions create a major loophole, providing a legal pathway for exploitation of captive-bred wildlife and cover for wildlife trafficking for captive-bred species used in TCM. In response, the nongovernmental organization community, including the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), has called for further amendments to protect endangered species, shutting down commercial tiger breeding operations and domestic markets for big cat products, increasing monitoring and inspection of captive wildlife facilities to ensure their products and derivatives do not enter trade, and criminalizing possession of illegally sourced wild animals and their products. Finally, the law fails to offer similar anti-consumption protections for aquatic species (beyond those deemed rare or near extinction) as it does for terrestrial wildlife. It also permits auctioning of seized animals or products, which could be subject to abuse.

In addition to the WPL modification, in February 2021, the NFGA and MARA announced China’s first major update to its endangered species list in nearly 30 years. This highly significant move adds 517 new species to China’s National List of Protected Wild Animals and increased protections for 65 species from second-level to first-level protected status, including all sea turtle species. Additional information on the changes can be found here (courtesy of IFAW).

China’s recent measures to enhance protections for wild animals deserve commendation. They represent a significant step to combat the illegal wildlife trade, limit wildlife consumption, and reduce the risk of zoonotic disease transmission. While additional improvements are necessary—especially for captive bred species, aquatic species, and the use of wildlife in TCM—China’s recent wildlife law reforms have provided impetus and momentum for other nations to follow suit. In fact, shortly after China’s February 2020 announcement, Vietnam announced its intent to revise its wildlife laws to stop illegal trading and consumption of wildlife over fears it spreads disease. Despite COVID-19’s devastating effects on humans, it may have awakened the realization that we need to reform our laws to better protect and manage wildlife to prevent the next pandemic.

    Andrew Schatz


    Andrew Schatz is a legal advisor with Conservation International, where he advises on conservation finance, wildlife trafficking, and climate change. As part of his practice, Schatz advises foreign countries on wildlife law reform, leading the government of Liberia’s reform of its National Wildlife Law and providing advice to the government of China on revisions to its Wildlife Protection Law.