- Both coronaviruses are linked to live animal markets, where sick, injured and dying animals are sold as exotic foods but end up transmitting disease
- For too long, wildlife traders have been allowed to hide behind empty claims of medicine or conservation. It’s time to ban the unsavoury trade permanently
The deadly coronavirus, 2019-nCoV, has paralysed Wuhan and plunged China into a state of emergency. Sweeping across Chinese provinces, municipalities and special administrative regions, the epidemic has killed at least 106 people in the country.
With the death toll and number of infections climbing, this is turning into a major global public health crisis, similar to that caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) in 2003. People infected with the 2019-nCoV have been found in countries across North America, Europe, Southeast and South Asia.
The Wuhan coronavirus has confirmed the worst fears of many who have long called for an end to China's wildlife wet markets. While two groups of scientists were debating whether the hosts of the 2019-nCoV were snakes, birds or mammals, the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed, after successfully isolating the novel coronavirus in environmental samples collected from the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, that it came from wildlife animals sold in the market in downtown Hankou of Wuhan.
The first group of Wuhan's 2019-nCoV patients were mostly traders at the market; one early patient had never visited it. The wet market had a section selling some 120 wildlife animals across 75 species. The first group of Wuhan patients is similar to the first group of Sars patients, who were also traders of wildlife in Guangdong.
All wildlife trade activities have now been banned after a notice by the agriculture and rural affairs ministry, the state administration for market regulation, and the state forestry. While the ban, which took effect on January 26, is temporary, aiming to suspend trade only until the epidemic is over, this joint action suggests the national government has finally accepted the findings of Chinese scientists.
China's top Sars authority Professor Zhong Nanshan had proposed a lasting ban back in 2010, when he warned of a similar pandemic if wildlife markets remained open. Professor Guan Yi, a Hong Kong University virologist who studied the Sars pathogen in 2003, had also made the same proposal. The 2019-nCoV is the huge price we are paying for snubbing the country's top scientists.
There has long been a wildlife-eating subculture in southern China. But it was only over the past three decades that exotic foods became a status symbol. In parts of the country, you could order bear paws, pangolin meat and migratory birds.
Recent videos showing young women eating boiled bats caused a big stir. In 2014, a Guangxi businessman was sentenced to 13 years' imprisonment for killing and eating a tiger.
China should shut down live food markets to stop another virus outbreak
China has a Wildlife Protection Law but critics say this protects business interests over wildlife. The State Forestry and Grassland Administration, the country's authority for wildlife management, has practically become a spokesperson for wildlife business interests, despite the lessons of Sars. It is no surprise that eating wildlife has continued.
Wildlife businesses have been promoting their parochial interests as part of the national interest. Tiger and rhino farms claim to operate in the interests of conservation. Bear farm owners link their industry with public health. Many other wildlife-related businesses are protected for their alleged role in poverty reduction.
The wildlife trade ban is too late. Pangolins have been all but wiped out from the country's valleys and forests. Snakes are rarely seen in much of south China, leading to serious ecological crises. No more than 30 Siberian tigers are thought to exist inside China.
Bears in the wild have dropped by 93.4 per cent since the 1980s when bear farming began. Chinese wildlife traders now venture overseas for wildlife and their body parts. What Chinese customs manages to intercept is just the tip of the iceberg.
China's wildlife markets have become a hotbed for diseases. Animals that are sick, dying of illness or injured during their capture and transport are not food, but health hazards. The workers who handle, kill and process the animals are vulnerable to viruses through cuts on their skin. The secretions of infected snakes can be aerosolised and breathed in by workers and shoppers alike.
Wildlife trade hurts rather than benefits China. Exotic foods constitute a mere fraction of the country's 4.2 trillion yuan (US$605 billion) catering industry. Bear bile and other wildlife ingredients of traditional Chinese medicine are not life-saving drugs.
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The brutal operation of bear farming has lost favour in the court of public opinion. Rhino horns are not cures for cancer. Farming rhinos hurts China's reputation. No government economic report has recognised the contribution of wildlife business to poverty reduction.
The just-issued trade ban should not be a temporary measure. It should be made a lasting policy. China has to choose between the narrow interests of wildlife businesses and the national interest of public health. It cannot allow a minority of wildlife traders and exotic food lovers to hijack the public interest of the entire nation.
Peter J. Li, PhD is associate professor of East Asian politics at the University of Houston-Downtown and a China policy specialist at Humane Society International
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