China's consumption of wild animals hit by covid-19

Majority approve of Beijing's desire to reduce it and control markets

3 min
a young man butchering a crocodile at a live animal market in Guanghzou

BeijingStalls filled with cages holding cats, civets, bamboo rats, ostriches or more supposedly exotic animals such as monkeys, pangolins and, of course, snakes piled up on top of each other, can no longer be seen in Chinese markets. Above all, they are not easy to find because they are no longer legal. The covid-19 pandemic that originated in Wuhan, specifically in the Huanan market at the end of 2019, has not only led to the change of laws in China regarding these customs but has also changed the perception of consumers. A survey conducted by the environmental organization WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) in China, Thailand, Vietnam, Burma and the United States, the main countries where it is a common practice to eat wild animals, shows that consumption has fallen by 30% in 2021. In China, specifically, the decline is 28%, but more than 85% of respondents agree with the closure of markets. Only 9% say they will continue to consume this type of meat. If there is no demand, it will be easier to combat illegal supply.

Beijing acted swiftly against these markets in the face of the spread of the covid-19 pandemic. As noted, by the end of February 2020 it had already banned the trade and consumption of wild animals, including those raised on farms, and initiated a drastic restructuring of the sector. Last December, in fact, the government announced that all establishments dedicated to the consumption of bushmeat had been closed. But it is another matter whether legality is enforced. Trafficking is difficult to eradicate because it involves the movement of large sums of money.

A report, jointly prepared by researchers at Oxford University and China West Normal, estimates that some 47,000 wild animals were sold in Wuhan markets in the two and a half years before the covid-19 outbreak and that more than 1,000 a month were traded illegally.

Despite this, in contrast to the SARS epidemic of 2003, this time, and probably due to the severity of covid-19 on a global scale, China shows political will to control the trade in live animals. In 2003, however, Beijing limited itself to a brief ban on the trade and consumption of civets, the carnivorous mammal identified as the host of the SARS virus, for a brief period. The WHO's recommendations at the time to close live animal markets were not followed in the face of pressure from animal lobbyists.

The economic burden

The wildlife industry had a market value of 65 billion euros and provided direct and indirect jobs for 14 million people, according to a 2016 report by the Chinese Academy of Engineering. In the 1980s, China had encouraged the creation of small wildlife farms and in the 1990s the industry expanded. Most of the farms were in the southwest of the country and a transportation network was also developed to ship the live goods to markets. There was even a state forestry office that oversaw the sector. Banning the trade, transport and consumption of live animals has made it necessary to design a reconversion and compensate the farmers. A large majority of the farms have been closed and the animals slaughtered or released into the countryside. Part of the sector has been reoriented to the breeding of animals to sell their skins, despite the fact that this can also constitute a sanitary risk.

Despite the considerable economic impact, most Chinese do not eat animals considered wild, let alone pets. It is a much stronger tradition in the south of the country, where a well-known saying comes from: "They eat everything that flies except airplanes, everything that swims except boats, and everything with legs except tables". In the Guangdong province, near Hong Kong, about 80% of the population does eat this meat regularly. The average is lower in cities like Beijing or Shanghai, where it is between 5% and 15%. At the table, they are considered a delicacy and Chinese medicine gives them curative properties. Markets like the one in Wuhan, where there was a long menu of rare animals, were not difficult to find in other cities like Kunming, Canton or Shenzhen. In the markets it was common to see animals piled up, even wounded or dying, without any sanitary control or hygienic measures, an ideal place for pathogens and viruses to mutate.

A scene probably difficult to manage for the WHO, which has long reiterated the need to ban the sale of wild mammals in food markets to prevent future pandemics and recently recalled that "animals, particularly wild animals, are the source of more than 70% of all emerging infectious diseases in humans, many of which are caused by new viruses".