SHANGHAI: As China's parliament prepares new laws to ban the trade and consumption of wildlife, local action plans published this week suggest the country's fur trade and lucrative traditional medicine sectors will continue as usual.
After identifying exotic animals traded in a Wuhan market as the most likely source of COVID-19, Beijing imposed a temporary ban on the wildlife trade in late January. Parliament followed up in February with a resolution promising to enshrine a permanent ban in law.
Though legislative changes are expected to be discussed at the national session of parliament starting on Friday (May 22), regions are already taking action to implement the February ruling.
Hunan and Jiangxi, both major wildlife breeding provinces, promised this week to release captive animals into the wild wherever possible, and will pay hunters and breeders to switch to other professions.
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But they left the fur trade untouched, and included loopholes allowing traders to stay in business if their products are used for science or medicine.
That means the practices that lead to cross-species virus transmission could continue, said Peter Li, China policy specialist with Humane Society International, an animal rights group.
"There is nothing to stop farmers continuing business as usual but pivoting to selling their farmed wild animals for traditional Chinese medicine instead," he said.
Since January, regulators have cracked down on trade in wet markets and online e-commerce platforms. Authorities in Shanghai closed shops and took action against dozens of online stores selling lizards, peacocks and even arctic foxes.
But some products associated with traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) remain for sale, reflecting legal ambiguities and a strong demand for folk remedies.
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Traders told Reuters they can still harvest bat guano and sell it for use in a traditional medicine known as yemingsha, used to treat eye and spleen complaints.
Bats have been implicated as a possible source not only of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, but also Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome, SARS and even Ebola.
The February parliamentary resolution promised to ban wildlife consumption for food while allowing it to continue for medicinal purposes, but in TCM, the distinction doesn't apply: wild animals are eaten because of supposed medical benefits.
Though it has been recognised by the World Health Organization as a valid therapy, critics say that there is no evidence TCM works, and that it puts endangered species further at risk.
"Since the 1980s, eating wild animals has been promoted in TCM remedies for such things as skin health, fertility, longevity and fighting cancer, and it's undoubtedly a powerful lobby," Li said.
China has extolled the virtues of TCM in the fight against COVID-19.
Lawmakers have proposed rules forcing producers to find synthetic replacements, saying the sector's dependence on outdated practices undermines quality as well as the prospects of promoting the sector overseas.
Musk and tiger bone have already been replaced by artificial ingredients, but firms say they are still years away from producing viable alternatives to bear bile, a major component of tanreqing, a recommended TCM treatment for COVID-19.
Bear bile is sourced from captive breeding facilities, which were also exempt from the January ban, though the practice has been branded cruel by animal welfare groups.
Bear bile producers Guizhentang and Shanghai Kaibao Pharmaceutical declined to comment when contacted by Reuters, though Kaibao said in February it was still working on synthetic replacements.
It remains unclear how the industry will be affected by new legislation, with parliament promising at least a stronger approval and supervision regime.
"It will be important for TCM experts, wildlife conservation experts, and relevant authorities to take a look at TCM-related laws and regulations to make sure they are consistent," said Aili Kang, executive director of the Asia Program of the Wildlife Conservation Society.
"To strictly forbid the use of endangered species, no matter wild or captive breeding population ... is good for both TCM and conservation," she added.