In response to the invitation for public comment issued by China’s National People’s Congress on 21 October 2020, we, the undersigned experts in our fields, hereby provide the following comments and call upon China’s National People’s Congress to make further amendments to the country’s Wildlife Protection Law to ensure that a precautionary approach is adopted to the commercial breeding of – and trade in – wild animals, including for non-food purposes. We contend that only a ‘One Health’ approach which prioritises human, animal and ecological wellbeing can effectively reduce the risk of future pandemics and mitigate the acute threat to biological diversity, a key pillar of human and planetary health.
We commend the swift action taken in 2020 by the Chinese Government to amend regulatory frameworks in response to widespread concerns over public health risks posed by the commercial trade in wild animals, triggered by the emergence of COVID-19. We note that in recognition of such risks, a revision draft of the Wildlife Protection Law, published for public comment in October 2020, enshrines the need to guard against risks to public health in the guiding principles of the Law, and strictly prohibits the commercial breeding and trade of almost all terrestrial wild animal species for the purposes of consumption as food.
However, we are very concerned that an inconsistent approach to the trade in wildlife for non-food purposes evidenced in the revision draft is illogical and risks undermining the purpose, ambition and efficacy of the policy change to date, exposing human and animal populations to unnecessary risk of harm from future zoonotic outbreaks. For example, while Article 30 in the revision draft clearly prohibits the consumption of terrestrial wild animals as food, Article 30 states that use for non-food purposes such as medicine or exhibition may be permitted.
We note that the conditions which create a high risk of zoonotic spillover, including high-stress conditions and close contact during the breeding, capture and processing of wild animals, are likely regardless of whether these animals are intended to be used for food or non-food purposes. To avoid unnecessary risks to public health, we strongly recommend amending Article 31 and other articles which permit consumption of wild animal products for non-food purposes such as traditional medicine, ornamental items, pets or fur for clothing.
Moreover, we are also seriously concerned that the revision draft continues to allow the breeding and use of threatened and protected wild animal species, which undermines efforts to protect these species in the wild, as well as posing significant animal welfare and public health concerns. Overexploitation, including both illegal and unsustainable legal trade, is the second most important driver of biodiversity loss, which in turn is the second most impactful risk to public health in the coming decade. Commercial use of captive-bred wild animals frequently exacerbates the threat to wild populations by legitimising and stimulating demand, while providing opportunities for laundering illegally sourced specimens.
China is a key source of demand for many species which are seriously threatened by poaching and trade in their body parts, including pangolins, leopards, tigers, elephants and bears. The fact that China’s Wildlife Protection Law (and this revision draft) allows for the commercial exploitation of such species rather than working towards reducing such demand is an exacerbating factor in their decline. We strongly recommend amending Articles 26, 28 and 29 and other articles which contain provisions to allow the commercial exploitation of even threatened species for purposes such as heritage conservation, public exhibition and other purposes, which are interpreted to cover traditional medicine and ornamental items. Consistent with a precautionary approach and cognisant of the fact that any commercialisation of threatened wild animals risks exacerbating demand, we also recommend amending Article 62 to prohibit the auction of dead specimens or body parts of wild animals seized from the illegal trade, and require the destruction of stockpiles.
Finally, we note that China has a unique opportunity as the host of the upcoming 15th Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity to set a positive example for governments and the private sector worldwide by applying One Health and the precautionary principle in its legislation. By exacerbating threats to wild populations of threatened species and increasing the risk of zoonotic disease, the Wildlife Protection Law – if not amended – risks being incompatible with China’s formidable commitments under the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals towards ending poverty and protecting the planet. Further amending the Wildlife Protection law to prohibit the breeding, trade and consumption of terrestrial wild animals – at the very least those species which are threatened by trade – for any purpose is essential for China to be seen as a global leader in biodiversity conservation and pandemic prevention, at a time when the world is looking to China for bold leadership.