Notes from webinar 4: Amphibians and reptiles, the overlooked species
Should we ban eating reptiles and amphibians in China, and which protection law do they fall under? Are they sentient? Why are amphibians listed as aquatic animals? And what are the issues with large-scale farming?
Meet the panel
Tong Ying, Chief Reporter in Ecology Investigation and Director for China Environmental Journalists Association is an expert on environmental education, pollution and protection, who has witnessed the progress of ecological civilization in China, and has 20 years of experience of people with unique perspectives, and how ecological problems can influence society.
Clifford qualified in reptile biology at the Institute of Biology, London, and in medical science at the School of Medicine, University of Leeds, and has produced over 150 peer review papers, book chapters and books reptile welfare, conservation and human medicine.
Xiao Qing, Host, Deputy Secretary General of CBCGDF since 2018 and international politician, who studied Politology at the University of Bonn and has expertise in German-Sino politics. He will host webinar 4, which explores the overlooked species of amphibians and reptiles.
Xiao Qing, Host: Welcome to this webinar, which is fourth in a series of five think-tank webinars. The purpose behind them is that while people are making new policies in China, they can further assess the risks to public health and discuss how to reach ecological balance and prevent zoonotic disease.
On 24 February, the trade in wild animals for food was banned. Should we ban eating reptiles and amphibians in China, and which protection law do they fall under? Are amphibians and reptiles sentient? Why aren’t they listed in the livestock list, or wildlife list? Amphibians are listed under aquatic animals and reptiles are not listed anywhere at all. Are there hidden issues with large scale farming? What does it mean if people continue to eat them? Can farming and eating them make us sick?
Poll: what is Hasma
Frog fallopian tube and fat
- Host, Xiao Qing: In our research materials it showed amphibians and reptiles are used as pets and as food? What would you say the uses are?
Miss Tong: in 2008 investigations into grass frogs and wood frogs showed that in areas where frogs are farmed, animals were found without legs and without tails. The frog is known as ‘guardian of the wood’, and has a significant function in ecosystem to protect completeness of the system and avoid pestilence by insects. But we found people are hunting them on a huge scale, frog farmers collect on very large scale.
First they use them as food, cook them and eat them. Second they use them for TCM. Also something called ‘hasma’ – made from fallopian tubes of frogs. This is sold as medicine to improve sexual attraction, libido and virility in men. These are misconceptions. We made an investigation, first time we brought it up and in the past year due to development, local admin allowed the industry to develop, to farm the wood frog, but now we believe we should not continue. We found that the artificially bred wood frogs cannot be entirely artificially farmed, just semi farmed and there is huge damage to the ecosystem. It’s hard to prove if a frog is wild or bred artificially. Wild frog spawn is collected from wild, then tadpoles put back into the forests, and then the frogs are hunted again.
Snakes are widely consumed and used in medicines. It’s causing misbeliefs. We have done work to improve legislation from 24 Feb.
Clifford: I concur with Tong. There is a diversity of uses for reptiles and amphibians. Key areas are: food, pet trade, TCM, skin, curios (heads on key rings, or small live individuals sealed into plastic bags on key rings where they perish and die – a large industry), tourism, zoos, entertainment. History of problems regarding welfare are reflected in all areas. The means are brutal, inhumane and not well targeted so many species are caught in one go, and there are a whole variety of knock on effects. Reptiles and amphibians are bred in some in large numbers, but most are caught in the wild. Even if they are captive bred, or caught in wild, they are deprived of liberties, subject to many stresses and so on. So many problematic conditions, pets, food, TCM, together they co contribute to paradigm of use and abuse for unnecessary purposes. Scale is vast. 2012-2016 study found that 11.5 million wild animals were shipped around the world, and 1,300 species were involved in the trade. Other key studies found 25-40% of wildlife trade is illegal. Much of the trade is below government stats. The industry operates within China and western countries, and numbers come to billions of animals being exploited in awful ways.
Host, Xiao Qing: Thank you very much. A follow up question for Miss Tong: are people aware of what they’re eating, do they know what they’re eating?
It’s a strange phenomenon that the traders selling wild animals, or farmed animals online say the animals are from the wild. But when law enforcement goes in there, they tell journalists they breed them on farms. Consumers like wild animals, they see them as original and natural. If artificially bred in a farm, they are ready to tell the truth. It’s hard to define. Wood frog – spawn is harvested from the wild so it has wild origins. With snakes, the eggs are taken from the wild, but snakes are hatched in captivity, not bred. Consumers do not know this. They think these wild animal foods are interesting and might be good for health and improve function, but we lack public and environmental education. You asked are we aware if it’s wild – in the process of capturing wild animals, wild and non-wild are mixed together. In past years commercial use policy hasn’t been completed or perfected and law enforcement is in early stages.
- Host, Xiao Qing: Are reptiles and amphibians capable of feeling?
Clifford: Yes they are definitely sentient. Scientific protocols can be applied to reptiles and amphibians to prove sentience. Sentience means the ability to feel and perceive. When we apply the criteria used to assess sentience in humans, primates, dogs, they work with reptiles too – pleasure, anxiety, stress, distress, excitement, fear, frustration, thirst, hunger – all have emotional outcomes that relate to sentience. Many papers available show that reptiles and amphibians have similar anatomy, physiology and psychology – including brain cognition and intelligence – so it’s difficult to separate them from other animals we already give protection as sentient being, so reptiles and amphibians must be given protection too. Compare a human in a forest with a human in the city – they wouldn’t do well if swapped around. The same applies for all animals. We must test the animal in the right way and then we realise they are sentient.
Amphibians and reptiles play, they have memories, they can count, have individual personalities, and given enriched environments in captivity, they do so much better than in poor conditions, which is sadly how most of them are kept.
- Host, Xiao Qing: So there is a ban to eliminate ‘the bad habit of eating wildlife’ and some farmers are influenced by that, some are working on upgrading those industries locally. Are reptiles and amphibians on the livestock or wildlife list?
Tong: Not long ago I wrote to Ministry of Agriculture to say that wood frogs are not listed on the livestock list – we’re happy about this as many agencies working since ban. The Minister said that if listed as livestock, they will issue a list but however in reality there are many – it’s estimated over 100,000 people raising wood frogs and many others raising snakes and reptiles. These people are opposed to the list, what’s on the list etc. I told them about my job and that had exposed that wood frogs cannot be artificially farmed, only semi-artificially farmed. There is a huge impact on eco-balance of the place they’re harvested. If there are too many or not enough frogs, some insects are endangered and too many shouldn’t be eaten. The existing balance of their habitats has taken hundreds of years to establish. Journalists as whistle blowers must write about it and expose what’s happening to the public. The letter we wrote says these animals should not be listed as aquatic animals or on the livestock list. We haven’t seen the frogs listed as those that can be farmed. The farmers are in pain too. But we have to experience a period of pain to know more, and I think in future China government will do more to protect wildlife.
- Host, Xiao Qing: Are there similar lists in the western world to manage and regulate these animals?
Clifford: These animals are listed as wildlife. There is a difference between cows, chickens and traditionally farmed animals and wild animals – just because it’s bred in captivity does not mean a wild animal becomes domestic. CITES (Convention on Trade in endangered Species), and TRACES (Trade Control and Expert System) and DASIE systems exists for threatened and invasive alien species. All such species are on negative lists – when proven to be problematic – these are wildlife lists. The systems don’t work well – they’re a burden on wildlife and welfare protection groups, individuals, independents to show there is a problem. By then the trader has used up the resource and moved on to other animals. All lists I mentioned for wildlife operate on negative system. Positive lists pre-assess animals before they can be used; thus, they have to be proven safe for public, the way they are sourced, no environmental damage and animals must not suffer. So there is a very small list. We have accepted the principle of positive lists around the world – ie a driving licence. Doctors pass exams. Vets, pilots etc. All on positive lists, cars, drugs, buildings, and the system should be applied to the wildlife trade. Nothing should be traded unless independent evidence says it can without damage to environment, to people or other animals. Reptiles and amphibians should not be considered livestock as they are wild animals and should be seen very differently.
- Host, Xiao Qing: What can we do to protect these species of animals?
Clifford: The starting point I usually go to is education. We try to educate everyone – farmers, people who take, people who use, include the government. Education is the first thing, webinars like this contribute and help to gain public support and sympathy and for people who buy and sell and fall victim to disease from these animals. And government takes an interest, which they do.
As much as education is standard approach, often it doesn’t result in meaningful restrictions or stopping of a problem so what works well is a legal ban. Like the ban in China after Wuhan. A permissive system allows for activity if proven safe. Best way forward. For protecting reptiles and amphibians all around the world for the future.
- Host, Xiao Qing: Do all reptiles and amphibians carry zoonotic diseases? What if they become a carrier, what are the risks?
Clifford: There are 40 known zoonotic infestations attributable to reptiles and amphibians through contact with these animals. Involves a wide variety of pathogens – viruses, bacteria, fungi, parasites (tiny in blood, big in gut), quite a lot of potential infections. In some cultures, people think if you cook it, it is safe and to some degree works but is not truly safe – prions caused mad cow disease – also in humans and neurological problems, these can’t be stopped by cooking and these can’t be controlled so people don’t know they’re taking in the germs/pathogens. Many could take a year before disease shows. Who’s going to think it was because they ate an amphibian a year before, most people don’t make the connection.
- Host, Xiao Qing: What are the potential problems of eating wild frogs or snakes?
Clifford: From eating amphibians and reptiles there are many gastro intestinal – stomach and intestines – risks. Salmonella and campylobacter bacteria are examples that enter through food. Unless cooked very well, almost burnt, risk of catching. These are debilitating diseases to have. Causes wasting and malaise and under performance, vomiting etc. In United States 70,000 people get sick from pet reptiles every year. In UK 5.5-6,000 people get sick from reptiles every year. One related issue in media is Covid – but there many diseases out there that could be devastating. Ebola – in Africa, from bats kills 50-80% of people infected. Covid kills 5-10%. Monkeypox, covid-1 (SARS), MERS (SARS in middle east) were caught from mammals, many of these diseases out there ready to come into the human population. Humans are an untapped resource for novel pathogens; we’re inviting them in by giving access to animals we shouldn’t be keeping or eating at all.
Tong: So can farms of wood frogs help protect wild animals? Many diseases comes from wild animals: these are the major killers of human populations, such as malaria or many other serious diseases such as cholera, Ebola, MERS, COVID-19, although the original host not identified yet, for sure it came from wild animals. So it can pass from animal to human being. Due to inappropriate use of animals by humans, the contact causes viruses to jump – in 2014 we investigated illegal hunting of migratory birds. People caught them and sent them to other places to be commercially used. People over feed the birds and cause them to catch diseases from human beings. H1N1 – wild birds caught original virus from a human and without antibodies, all birds would have the virus and then the virus jumps to domestic chickens or poultry and then to another animal or humans. Well regulated scientific farms are necessary – a positive list is a great thing only when we’re sure that we’re doing something legal and safe, otherwise we should never allow it and regulations should kick in. Back to wood frogs – we haven’t confirmed what they can pass disease on to humans, but when people catch and farm frogs, it causes damage to the genetic purity of frog. People hunt too many females for the hasma – so too many male frogs are left unable to breed. With farming wildlife, infectious disease not the only thing, we also have to think about the forest habitat too.
- Host, Xiao Qing: What do you think will be the worst scenario for the next pandemic?
Tong: I think the knowledge we humans have about nature after so many years on this planet is not much – it’s a world we know not so much about. We need to learn and study so the next pandemic is hard to imagine. But in China, SARS in 2013 was a huge pandemic, now COVID-19, after these two huge events COVID-19 was defined as occurring once in a century. We have to think about the way we commercially use wildlife. If we cannot do it properly we must stop. We need to control our mouths, our desire to eat and use animals as we haven’t controlled ourselves.
30,000 bacteria 75,000-300,000 parasites and 600,000-800,000 viruses are potential human pathogens that live harmoniously in nature, but the more we encroach on wild territory the more we see abnormal epidemics like COVID-19. In 2003, SARS-1 cost China 23b$; COVID-19 is set to have a global cost of over 4T$. Any one of these many potential human pathogens can manifest at any time – and they will come to the surface and many out there that will make COVID-19 seem very small an insignificant.
SARS cost China around $23 billion, COVID-19 has cost the global economy over $4 trillion, or $4,000 billion – that’s 4,000,000, 000,000. Another disease could manifest at any time, and they will come to the surface. Many diseases out there will make COVID-19 seem very small and insignificant.
Host, Xiao Qing: I have another question from our audience: if the consumer doesn’t know if it’s wild or not, what should we do as consumers?
Tong: This problem is easily solved. Our government administration has a list saying sika deer are currently in the livestock list. If legally bred, a channel can be tracked. Otherwise remember our positive list according to the ban. Illegal wild animals cannot be allowed to be eaten. Someone who really likes to eat wild animals – heads up – we have passed that, we have stepped into modern civilisation and are stepping into eco-civilisation, and have a mindset to abide by the law, for the public. We must not touch these animals and TCM must not be allowed by the law.
Clifford: Very many pathogens live in wildlife without causing problems until the ecological balance is disturbed. Viruses and bacteria that occupy these animals cannot be ‘cleaned’ out – whether wild or captive, and they can’t be screened for, and would be very expensive to test anyway. These are animals that cannot be made ‘clean’. One more thing: I don’t think it’s helpful for Chinese people or the Chinese government to feel demonized by those in the West who criticise China for its handling of the coronavirus issue. In many respects China handled the wildlife markets better than we do in the West because of our bureaucratic systems, which take years to act. Yet the Chinese government rightly decided action was necessary and they took it quickly. We here in the West can learn from that, and we should support China. The West has a good record at looking at animal welfare science and we should be keen to assist the Chinese government on this as well as the one health principle that feeds into society.
Host: COVID-19 this time – has it helped to raise public awareness in China?
Tong: Will people think wild animals are not clean for eating? Although they can host bacteria they should not fear wild animals, let’s not fear nature, great natures should be respected, ancient Chinese culture and Chinese doctors in favour of balance, they cherish natural resources but some people have misplaced beliefs about products from wild animals and nature we have to protect.
Reality in China is that amphibians have been listed as aquatic. I interviewed the top expert on amphibians in China. If frogs are categoriesd as aquatic, it’s not right, they live in water only as frog spawn and tadpoles, and the rest of their lives are lived in the forest. Law must follow upper law, and if national law is finally revised, but we don’t have that trend yet.