Revision to China’s Wildlife Protection Law comes into force on 1st May risking animal and human health

Why has the Wildlife Protection Law been revised?

At the end of 2022, China passed a draft revision to their Wildlife Protection Law (WPL) which comes into force on 1st May 2023.  Revisions took place in 2020 and 2021 following the SARS-Cov-2 pandemic in order to reduce the opportunity for disease emergence resulting from close contact between animal populations and humans. 

ACTAsia, the Environment Investigation Agency and other Chinese organisations have worked together on joint statements and proposals during consultations for the revision process over the past two years. There was optimism that China would lead the way and permanently ban the commercial use of wild animals for all purposes, but unfortunately this has not happened.

Andrew Skowron / We Animals Media

Experts concerned new law threatens human and animal health

This revised WPL will come into force on 1st May, despite multiple appeals from campaign groups, leading animal charities and eminent scientists who have signed letters, warning that the changes will not prevent future pandemics or provide sufficient animal protection. The WPL is allowing, and even demonstrating official support for captive breeding and selling wildlife for commercial uses. 

On the upside, the revised law now includes protection for a wider range of threatened species, such as pangolins, otters, and wild camels and bans the consumption of wild animals that are not bred for food. But the revisions do not go far enough to protect wildlife and prevent future pandemics.

Disappointingly, the WPL continues to allow the breeding and utilisation of even the most endangered and protected species for commercial purposes. On the one hand, the WPL provides for threatened wild animals to be listed as “Species under Special State Protection” and on the other, it allows for these same species to be bred, traded and utilised for captive breeding, public exhibition and shows, cultural relics protection, medicine, and other undefined special circumstances. The lack of clear definitions for key terms such as “utilisation”, coupled with the exemption for “other special circumstances”, provide scope for species with the highest level of protection to be potentially bred and utilised for any possible purpose. 

Environmental groups have flagged up major concerns

According to Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA); “China remains the primary destination for illegally sourced parts and derivatives of many threatened wild animals such as tigers, leopards and pangolins. The allowance for commercial utilisation of these species, coupled with legal ambiguities, keeps consumer demand for their products high, driving poaching and illegal trade in other countries. EIA’s research indicates that while leopards and pangolins continue to decline in the wild, with poaching and trade being a primary threat to their survival, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) products claiming to contain leopard bone and pangolin scales continue to be licensed and sold online in China.”

ACTAsia fears more wild animals will be reclassified as livestock

ACTAsia and many other Chinese groups are highly concerned that the WPL will permit a path for adding wildlife species to the livestock list through the implementation of this law. This would in turn, open a pathway for animals that are currently classified as wild animals, to become simply ‘livestock’ once the number of animals in captivity has reached a certain stage and breeding techniques are matured according to the WPL. ACTAsia fears that this new ‘livestock’ would then be allowed to be produced for all uses eg: food, medicines, entertainment and displays etc.

In addition, the WPL no longer requires anyone engaging in the captive breeding of wildlife to apply for a permit. Instead, they merely need to report to the county-level wildlife authorities – and there’s no significant fine or punishment if breeders fail to do so.

Andrew Skowron / We Animals Media

WPL revisions risk zoonotic diseases and human health 

The reduction in regulation and enforcement is very dangerous in an industry that has a history of whitewashing, due to the difficulty in identifying the difference between caught wildlife and farm bred wildlife. Like ACTAsia, many Chinese organisations and experts are concerned that the floodgates will open, with a substantial increase, not only in the number of wild animals being bred in captivity, but also in the number of establishments with low animal welfare standards. 

As a result, more animals are likely to become sick, leading to the transmission of pathogens from wildlife to humans and creating a zoonotic ‘spill over’ – something many scientists are also worried about. This clearly undermines the benefits achieved from the ban on consumption of wild animals as food. There is also no safeguard in the WPL that even the species with the highest degree of protection will be exempt from the possibility of being categorised as livestock. 

Amy Jones / Moving Animals / We Animals Media

Fur Farming danger to health 

The most concerning issue is that the WPL permits fur bearing animals including mink, blue foxes (arctic fox), silver foxes and racoon dogs and other wildlife, to be classified as livestock. China is the largest producer of furs in the world according to volume, and shocking details of the impact of the fur trade has been exposed in ACTAsia’s extensive report on China’s multi-billion-dollar fur industry. The report confirmed a downward trend in production, exports, and overall profitability of fur pelts and fur garments. However, alarmingly the fur industry in China is now offering a wider range of fur products through online marketing and live streaming, as well as a more diverse range of fur products tailored to the needs of the different markets in China. 

Furthermore, fur farming raises serious welfare concerns as these farms are at risk of promoting zoonotic diseases. The human health risks of fur farming were clearly demonstrated by Denmark’s culling of its entire population of 17 million mink in 2020 due to the COVID pandemic, and other countries have acted to ban fur production. Indeed, a recent study, in March 2023, concluded that two of the main three species used for fur, have been implicated as potential intermediary hosts for COVID-19 including racoon dog. Researchers also fear that, unless strict biosafety measures are adhered to, China’s fur farms could become disease hot spots therefore risking another global pandemic.

We Animals Media

The revisions to the WPL puts global health at risk

The revisions to the WPL were a great opportunity for China to adopt a new attitude, close legislative gaps and play a leading role in the conservation of wildlife. China also chaired the 15th COP on Biological Diversity in 2021 which offered hope for a global move towards a One Health approach. Regrettably, this opportunity appears to have been missed. Global health is at risk with the amended laws. The revisions entrench the approach of captive breeding and farming of wild animals for commercial purposes with its attendant risks for not only for wildlife – which the law is meant to be protecting – but also risks for human health.