While China’s President Xi Jinping has been speaking out about the country’s commitment to combating wildlife trade, bureaucrats at the State Forestry Administration seem to be doing the opposite.
They’re responsible for occasional, routine updates to China’s outdated Wildlife Protection Law. While the current version of the law, in force since 1989, states that its purpose is to protect and save threatened wildlife, the draft new version adds the competing goal of “regulating the utilization of wildlife.” The language in many ways undermines the president’s—and many citizens’—desire to end the exploitation of wildlife in China.
First, the draft law continues to allow the existence of captive breeding programs of wild animals for commercial purposes, as well as the capture of wild animals for these programs. The language legitimizes the use of wildlife for commercial purposes and encourages a consumptive attitude that stimulates demand for wildlife products, wrote Xie Yan, a researcher at the China Central Academy of Zoology.
Second, it explicitly states that wildlife can be used in making traditional Chinese medicine, health care supplements, and food for profit, again legitimizing the consumption of wildlife and opening the market further to “supplements,” something never before made outright legal in Chinese law.
And lastly, it endorses the use of wild animals for public displays and performances, which appears to be a step back from a 2010 policy recommendation that banned performances by animals in zoos.
Conservationists and animal welfare advocates had high hopes that the draft law would work to shut down some of China’s most exploitive wildlife practices allowed under the current law and bring it more in line with Chinese public opinion. “The Chinese public has moved on in their attitudes, and this [draft law] is a failure to keep pace,” said Peter Knights, the executive director of WildAid, a nonprofit that’s been fighting to change Chinese attitudes toward wildlife products ranging from shark fin to rhino horn to tiger bone. “It’s a lost opportunity.”
The new draft law views wildlife as a resource to be developed and used. In fact, the word “utilization” is used 24 times in the new draft, which includes no language at all on humane treatment, according to commentary by Peter Li, a professor of East Asian politics at the University of Houston-Downtown and a China expert at Humane Society International.
“Seeing animals as a resource is a cruel substitute for real wildlife protection in China,” he wrote.
Here are five things the draft law allows:
Tiger farms: There are about 200 tiger farms in China, where between 5,000 and 6,000 tigers are held mostly in inhumane conditions. The tigers are bred primarily for their skin and bones (though tiger bone products are officially banned), but they also generate money as a tourist curiosities. The continued existence of these farms gives some Chinese hope that the ban on tiger bones could be lifted. In turn, that sustains the belief in the healing power of tiger parts, thus encouraging consumption, Li said. The resurgence in demand for tiger bone wine in particular, which is believed to cure rheumatism and impotence, has helped drive the success of these farms. The growing demand for luxury wildlife products to show off wealth has also driven business.
Tiger farming has removed the stigma from tiger products, which in turn has encouraged poaching of wild tigers, as the Washington Post reported. It’s often more lucrative to hunt a tiger than raise one in captivity.
Bear bile farms: Chinese bear bile farms hold more than 10,000 bears whose bile is routinely extracted for use in traditional medicine via an invasive and painful process. Jill Robinson, the head of Animals Asia, a nonprofit that’s been fighting to end the practice, told The Guardian last year that the bears are subjected to: “rusting catheters, barbaric full-metal jackets with neck spikes, medicinal pumps and open, infected holes drilled into their bellies.”
The draft law not only continues the official endorsement of these farms, but it also helps farm owners expand their business. Bear bile is already used in traditional Chinese medicine, but the addition of the word “supplements” in the new draft law means that surplus bear bile can now be used in other products too.
Wild animal shows: Although the government has recommended against animal performances in zoos, the law makes it clear that wild animal performances are allowed at safari parks, marine parks, circuses, aquariums, and other privately owned enterprises. Tigers jumping through rings of fire, bears riding bicycles, and monkeys doing acrobatics are just a few of the myriad shows put on for tourists. Training often includes beatings. By continuing to allow animal performances, the law condones the exploitation of captive wildlife for commercial entertainment without providing any provisions for the well-being of the animals.
Fur farms: China has some of the world’s biggest mink, fox, and raccoon dog (also known as tanuki) fur farms. China also doesn’t have a single national animal welfare law. Because the draft law fails to include any anti-cruelty requirements, said Li of the Humane Society International, it is “in fact reaffirming the cruel practices impacting the welfare of captive wildlife.” Chinese law doesn’t even consider fur-bearing farmed animals, wildlife, though. They’re considered “economic animals,” Li said. As such, they have even fewer protections. On fur farms, animals are often kept in cramped cages exposed to the elements, and there have been accusations by animal rights groups, including videos, that workers sometimes skin animals alive.
Shark fin and bird’s nest soup: Fins for shark fin soup are often procured by slicing the fin off a live shark and then throwing the fish back into the sea to drown or bleed to death. About 100 million sharks are killed each year, according to the Smithsonian Institution, and some species have lost up to 70 percent of their population because of shark fishing.
Demand for bird’s nest soup, which is made from the saliva-based nests of the swiftlet, is driving those birds to extinction. The male birds build cup-like nests on the sides of cave walls from their own cement-like saliva, which, when mixed with water creates a gelatinous, delicate flavoring for soup. Efforts to provide protection for swiftlets against international trade have failed, and an investigation in 2000 by the San Francisco Chronicle reported that in some areas, there are only one-third as many nests as in 1990.
Because the new draft law explicitly allows the use of wildlife in foodstuffs, conservationists consider it an official endorsement of eating wildlife. Beyond that, this part of the law may undermine President Xi’s attempts to crack down on government extravagance and corruption. In 2013, the government banned the consumption of shark fin and bird’s nest soup at official banquets amid growing anger that politicians’ lavish parties were a sign of unethical and corrupt behavior, Reuters reported.
This story was produced by National Geographic’s Special Investigations Unit, which focuses on wildlife crime and is made possible by grants from the BAND Foundation and the Woodtiger Fund. Read more stories from the SIU on Wildlife Watch. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.