China doubles the number of its protected animals

For the first time in 32 years, China has imposed hefty fines on the trading and consumption of many species, including many birds and even wolves. This decision appears to be in part a response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

China doubles the number of its protected animals
Wolves have been added to China's list of protected species for the first time. Image: Tambako The Jaguar, via Flickr. <span class="c-mrkdwn__highlight">CC</span> BY-NC-ND 2.0.<br>

China has announced that it is now doubling the number of protected wild animals coming under its conservation rules.

This is the first time that any animals have been added to the list in 32 years.

Many of the new protected species are birds. Wolves were also added to the list for the first time.

Under new rules, harming any one of the 980 species on the updated list would bring a hefty fine of 100,000 yuan, or USD$15,500.

The new list will be instrumental in guiding future research funding, much of which comes from the government.

Zhang Jinshuo, vice director, National Zoological Museum of China. 

The writer Li You said, “it took more than three decades, but Chinese environmental groups and advocates have finally gotten their wish: an updated protected wildlife animals list with more than 500 new species on it.”

China’s decision in early February to ban the trade and consumption of wild animals appears to be in part a response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Scientists suspect that Covid-19 originally came from bats located in China. They are said to have passed it on to animals, which then passed it on to humans.

If well implemented, the ban could also help to combat the illegal trafficking of wild animals.

List doesn’t go far enough

But some experts say that the new list doesn’t go far enough.

Debbie Banks at the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) said that the updated list of protected animals is long overdue and brings greater protection to species that were previously overlooked.

But she said that exemptions still exist under which species with the highest levels of protection can still be subject to commercial exploitation.

The exemptions allow for the trade in animals that are captive-bred or bred for “heritage conservation or other special purposes.”

This, she said, “perpetuates the desirability of these parts and products, stimulating demand, not reducing it….”

Under the exemptions, skins of captive-bred tigers can be processed into luxury home décor, and medicines containing leopard bone parts and pangolin scales can be manufactured and sold on the domestic market.

Based on seizures of illegal cargo originating in Africa and intended for Asian markets, pangolins are the most trafficked animals in the world

The largest of these markets include China, Hong Kong, and Vietnam.

Illegal pangolin imports have increased tenfold since 2014, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Criminal gangs are involved in seizing and selling pangolins.

Limited to animals in the wild

Kyle Oberman, an environmental photographer and writer based in Chengdu, China, detects a loophole in the new list because the protection of many species was only limited to those in the wild.

Oberman wrote on the subject for the website SupChina.

As both he and Debbie Banks explain, legal domestic breeding programs often rely on illegally caught animals. They can make a profit by meeting Chinese middle-class demands for animal parts that purportedly provide health benefits, despite any medical evidence that this is the case.

But China has come a long way since the days of Mao Zedong. As described by Oberman, in 1955, Mao began to encourage people to eradicate four “pests.”

These four were flies, mosquitoes, rats, and sparrows, all believed to be harmful to people and agriculture.

Mao’s edict led to millions of sparrows being slaughtered.

Posters and even Chinese children’s songs and books propagated the slogan “eliminate sparrows.”

Mao’s goal was to “conquer nature.”

At the time, a scientist researching birds at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Zoology Research Institute suspected that eradicating sparrows was damaging agricultural production.

Zheng Zhuoxin found that as a result of the loss of the sparrows, crops were being devastated by insects.

After studying the contents of sparrows’ stomachs, Zheng found that the majority of the content of their stomachs was made up of insects. There was no evidence that they had been living off agricultural crops.

According to Oberman, Zheng’s research led Mao in 1960 to terminate the sparrow elimination campaign.

This in turn led to a greater appreciation among many Chinese not only of sparrows but also of other bird species.

When it comes to wolves, it has taken longer for many to appreciate that wolves play a positive role in controlling and eliminating animals that threaten the ecosystem.

According to the writer Li You, wolves’ adaptability helped them to spread through China. But the sheer size of their range and their tendency to prey on livestock brought them into constant conflict with a growing population.

Li You says that wolves may now be the biggest winners from the new list of protected species, “a potential indication that China is rethinking its human-centric approach to conservation”

According to The Economist magazine in its latest edition published on Feb. 27, a Chinese best-selling novel titled Wolf Totem, which was released in 2004, marked a turning point in popular attitudes toward wolves.

The book is a semi-autobiographical story of a student who goes to live among ethnic Mongolian herders during the Cultural Revolution.

He becomes fascinated by the wolves that prey on their livestock. He laments the destruction of Inner Mongolia’s grasslands by farmers from China’s ethnic Han majority and their failure to recognise the positive role played by wolves in preserving the region’s ecology.

“Wolf Warrior,” a patriotic action movie released in 2015, embodies a China that is respected and self-confident.

Wolf Warrior Diplomacy has meanwhile become a term used by both admirers and critics to describe the tactics of combative and aggressive Chinese ambassadors.

Possible solutions

John Gruetzner, vice chairman of Intercedent Limited, a Canada-based, Asian-focused investment advisory firm, thinks there should be a global ban on cross-border trade in all wildlife.

But he acknowledges that when it comes to China, problems can result from the difficulty of enforcing new rules and from poverty prevailing in rural areas where profits can be made from capturing wild animals and selling them.

Making things more difficult, criminal gangs in Vietnam and Africa are also involved in wild animal trafficking.

Interpol, the international police organisation based in Lyon, France, could have done more for a number of years to crack down on the trafficking, but its budget and operations appeared not to focus sufficiently on the wildlife trade.

But all of that has now changed. Interpol now appears to be fully focused on the issues involved. One of its mandates is to share information on the criminal gangs behind most of the wildlife trafficking.

The profiles of wildlife criminals have evolved. Today they are organised, innovative, well-connected, and run global syndicates that commission the mass slaughter and capture of protected species in all parts of the world. 


 “The gangs import and export endangered species via the same routes that they use to smuggle weapons, drugs, and other illicit goods,” Interpol says.

Interpol says that it has now shifted its investigations from low-level poachers and traders to identifying the key individuals and actors behind the trade.

John Gruetzner, a Canada-based expert, suggests that to curb exports and imports of captured wildlife for sale, trained dogs should be put back in all Chinese airports.

And, he says, Americans should be encouraged to end “trophy hunting” for wild animals in places such as Africa, adding that US citizens are also a major buying source for exotic pets.

Gruetzner serves as co-chair of the preparatory team of E-Ranger Lab, which is exploring the use of the internet to mitigate the illegal wildlife trade.

This story was published with permission from Radio Free Asia

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