‘Shut it down’: Pressure piles on China to rethink relationship with wild animals as pandemic causes global chaos

Partly a product of post-Mao economic reforms, the trade in wild animals is coming under intensifying scrutiny, finds Kim Sengupta

Saturday 11 April 2020 20:16 BST
There are multiple campaigns in action to get wet markets closed down around China
There are multiple campaigns in action to get wet markets closed down around China

As the coronavirus pandemic swept through the US in early April, China readied to re-open in its controversial wet markets. Senior US congressmen began to threaten trade reprisals, and there have been renewed demands that Beijing pays reparations for the fatal delay in warning the outside world of the coming crisis.

The calls for China to face financial penalties have been echoed by some politicians in other countries including Britain and Australia. There has been widespread condemnation of what is seen as Chinese subterfuge, which allowed the pandemic to spread so wide, so virulently. The latest criticism came from the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, which accused Beijing of “manipulation and disinformation”.

Wet markets are where traders sell fresh produce, fruit and vegetables, but also wild and domestic animals, dead and alive: there have been regular complaints of some of them operating in unsanitary conditions. Dry markets sell non-perishable goods, including packaged food.

The Independent is calling for global action to create tighter restrictions surrounding the trade in wild animals, to help prevent reduce the risk of zoonotic diseases such as coronavirus.

The Stop the Wildlife Trade campaign asks that governments work together to impose stricter controls on the trade, sale and consumption of wild animals.

The accusation now is not just that China is culpable for the current pandemic but that it is the incubator for another devastating contagion in the future. The great risk comes from its wet markets – the one in Wuhan is believed to be the source of Covid-19 and also its huge and highly lucrative trade in wildlife. Official Chinese figures for wildlife trade and consumption shows that it was worth more than $74bn and has provided work for 14 million over the past decade.

In Washington senator Lindsey Graham has launched a campaign in congress to get China to close wet markets once and for all. The Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, has urged the United Nations and World Health Organisation to ensure that Beijing does not reopen them. The United Nations’ biodiversity chief, Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, has said that she would support a global ban on wildlife markets, and there is also support for the measure from senior conservationists within China.

Writing for The Independent on Friday, Ms Mrema said: “Global wildlife trade and live animal markets, where live fish, meat and wild animals are sold, are important risk factors for zoonotic disease spillover. Accordingly, measures taken by countries to reduce the number of live animals in food markets can significantly reduce the risk of disease outbreaks. Stricter controls on the sale and consumption of wild species, and implementation of the International Health Regulations, must also be scaled up globally.”

Senator Graham asked: “What can China do to help the world? Shut those markets down. The source of this virus is the Chinese wet markets. They are absolutely disgusting, selling exotic animals that transmit viruses from animals to human beings. About the last three or four pandemics have come from the Chinese wet markets.”

It is indeed the case that some of the most lethal viruses that have spread beyond borders have come from contact between wild animals and humans.

Workers wearing face masks prepare a barbecue at a market in Wuhan, China 

The H2N2 Asian flu in 1957-1958 came from a mutation in wild ducks: it killed 1.1 million people worldwide. The H5N1 bird flu in 1997 came from Chinese geese, leaving around 460 dead. The Sars epidemic of 2002-2003 is thought to have come from bats or civet cats and killed around 780 people. The H7N9 Bird Flu in 2013 came from poultry at live bird markets with 610 dead. And now there is Covid-19, with more than 103,000 deaths so far and rising daily.

Senator Graham said he started his drive against wet markets after talking to Dr Anthony Fauci, America’s most senior expert on coronavirus, who had told him “it was a crazy decision which puts the whole world at risk”.

There is an element of irony in this. Dr Fauci now needs security protection following threats from hardline Trump supporters who have been angered by him contradicting the president, who had initially claimed the virus was a “Democrat hoax”. Dr Fauci was denounced as a traitor and a supporter of Hillary Clinton.

But on China and coronavirus at least, Dr Fauci and the Republicans are on the same hymn sheet. “It boggles my mind how, when we have so many diseases that emanate out of that unusual human-animal interface, that we just don’t shut it down. I don’t know what else has to happen to get us to appreciate that,” he told Fox News.

A seafood vendor wearing a face mask uses his phone at a wet market in Shanghai

In Melbourne, Premier Morrison bluntly stated “wet markets were a very real and significant problem wherever they exist. This virus started in China and went round the world, that’s how it started, we all know that.

“These wet markets are a real problem and this is something the UN and World Health Organisation should do something about… We can clearly see the risks to the health and wellbeing of the rest of the world as a result of these types of places and facilities.”

This week, more than 200 animal and wildlife charities from around the world wrote to the WHO, urging the body to demand Beijing close down all live animal markets, immediately, to prevent the spread of further pandemics.

Jinfeng Zhou, secretary general of the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation, said that a universal closure of wildlife markets was justified. Speaking to The Guardian, he said: “I agree there should be global ban on wet markets, which will help a lot on wildlife conservation and protection of ourselves from improper contact with wildlife. More than 70 per cent of human diseases are from wildlife and many species are endangered by eating them.”

There have also been calls in the UK for Chinese wet markets to be shut.

Such calls, however, were not evident two years ago, when Theresa May visited Wuhan, in the drive for post-Brexit trade with China. The then prime minister also went to Beijing and Shanghai on the trip. But the South China Morning Post noted: “Wuhan’s inclusion on Ms May’s itinerary seems surprising. The city rarely has been a destination for foreign visitors.”

Customers and stall owners wear protective face masks shop at a chicken stall at a wet market in Shanghai

Wuhan was rapidly becoming an important technological hub. But there were also concerns about its wet market, where exotic wild and domestic animals, dead and alive, were being sold in packed conditions.

There is no record of Ms May, or the Trade Secretary accompanying her, Liam Fox, a medical doctor, raising the issue of the wet market, despite UK National Security Strategy warning of a pandemic as a “tier one priority risk” and the knowledge that the Sars epidemic came from bats and civet cats.

Last month, as coronavirus spread, Beijing banned the trade and consumption of non-aquatic wild animals. The authorities subsequently announced that 20,000 farms raising animals including peacocks, porcupines and ostriches have been shut down. Last week Shenzhen became the first Chinese city to ban the sale and consumption of dog and cat meat. And on Wednesday, central authorities declared that dogs are companions – and not for consumption. Around 10 million dogs and four million cats are currently killed in the country every year.

However, restrictions imposed after Sars were subsequently lifted. And at the same time as the Chinese government put in its wildlife ban this time, it approved the use of bear bile to treat coronavirus patients. Beijing’s recent ban on the sale of wild animals is also a general guidance for regional authorities to enforce, and there are already signs that it is not being enforced.

The digestive juice from the animals, ursodeoxycholic acid, has long been used in traditional Chinese medicine, “tan re qing”, to dissolve gallstones and treat liver disease. There is no evidence that it is effective against Covid-19, for which there is no known cure, but some drug combinations have been found to alleviate symptoms.

A stall worker cuts pork for a customer at the Wan Chai wet market in Hong Kong

The ways of extracting the bile range from inserting rubber or metal tubes through a bear’s abdomen to cutting a permanent hole in the bear so it can be put on a “free-drip” system. The process is extremely distressing and painful for the bears. Animals Asia Foundation, an animal welfare group which rescues bears in the continent, recorded that the bears are often sick and their bile is contaminated with blood, pus and urine.

Brian Daly, a spokesperson for the Foundation, said “We really shouldn’t be relying on wildlife products like bear bile as the solution to combat a deadly virus that appears to have originated from wildlife.”

A spokesperson for Shanghai Pharmaceuticals company, China’s largest bear bile manufacturer, said the product came from “government-authorised animal breeding programmes... and they come from third generation of bred bears” rather than wild ones.

The laws in China also allows the farming of bats and pangolins – two of the animals suspected of transmitting Covid-19. Scales of the pangolin – an endangered mammal also known as a scaly anteater – are used tin traditional medicine and are being sold in some areas as antidotes for the virus.

Three of the bat species – Pipistrellus abramus, Murina leucogaster and Rhinolophus ferrumequinum – are found in Hubei province, which includes Wuhan. The third of these, the greater horseshoe bat, is sold commercially for its faeces and body parts. The faeces treatment, ming sha, or “night brightness sand”, is believed to cure certain eye problems while parts of the bat’s body are drunk with wine or taken as powders and thought to act as a “detox” treatment.

The animals used for medicine are meant to be bred under licence, but the system is open to widespread abuse with many being sold in wet markets. Shen Wangping, from the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF) which monitors wildlife poaching and trading in Hunan province, told the Los Angeles Times that state officials were often culpable in the illicit trade.

“People think this [forestry] administration’s job is to protect wild animals. But the organisation’s main objective is to push the breeding of wildlife everywhere, to give out permits for wildlife breeding and sales,” she said. “Breeders who have these permits can go to the wild and hunt down animals, pretend they are human bred and sell them legally in the market.”

Jinfeng Zhou the conservationist, speaking to The Guardian, asked: “Why were civet cats still encouraged to be eaten after the Sars outbreak? It’s because hunters, operators, practitioners needed that. How can they achieve that? They urged the government to support them under the pretext of economic development.”

There are accusations of conflict of interest in the body, which is supposed to be dedicated to the protection of animals. Three of the 14 board vice-chairs of the China Wildlife Conservation Association are also executives of traditional Chinese medicine companies.

One of them is with a company that specialises in medicine made out of deer musk, cow gallstone, snake bile and herbal root. Another is the managing director of one of the world’s biggest Chinese medicine companies, famous for its tiger bone wine. The third is one whose company focuses on treatments made from seahorse and pangolin scales.

A woman walks through a Hong Kong market wearing a face mask before coronavirus became the pandemic it is today

The trade in wildlife as food in markets took off during the post-Mao reforms of the economy. In the 1970s, with the country facing widespread food shortages, including starvation in some areas, huge collective farms were dismantled and land redistributed to households under the orders of the new leader Deng Xiaoping.

Smallhold farmers known as “specialised” or zhuanyehu because they focused on cash crops or livestock such as chickens, ducks or pigs began to spring up quickly in many parts of the country.

But then came the “second great leap forward” in the 1990s, when the government decided on a drive for economies of scale in agriculture. Well capitalised production conglomerates, “dragonheads”, often with ruling Communist Party connections, built supply chains with slaughterhouses and production facilities.

Some smallholders, seeing their income cut, gravitated to wild animals and local breeds, which got a relatively high return in wet markets. The move gained more ground when a number of diseases swept through livestock, adding to the burden of poorer farmers.

The result was more animals, wild and domestic, packed into the markets and worsening of sanitary conditions. With rats, bats, civet cats, pangolins and other wild animals becoming staples of rural farming, a law was passed to protect “the lawful rights of those engaged in the development or utilisation of wildlife resources.”

Wildlife is also brought into China from abroad for consumption. In the last 10 years Chinese customs authorities have recorded around 400 wildlife trafficking cases. Conservationists insist that the real figures are far higher.

Steve Glaister, founder of Freeland, a Thailand-based anti-trafficking organisation, wanted to stress that “Wuhan is a major wake-up call. The way to prevent further outbreaks is to stop the trade. Most wildlife is trafficked by gangsters. This is not a regulated trade, so no wonder there are infections and viruses spreading. HIV, Sars and bird flu came from animals and now this too. These markets are ticking time bombs.” HIV is believed to have originated in non-human primates.

Others warn, however, that an outright ban would only drive the trade in wildlife underground, making it difficult to detect. Professor Dirk Pfeiffer, of the City University of Hong Kong, points out that demand will remain. “The people who are providing them, whether farmed wild animals or animals from the wild, that’s an important source of income for them,” he said, speaking to the BBC. “Pushing it underground, that’s not the solution.”

Richard Thomas, of the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC, has also warned of the danger of forcing the trade into a black market and held that the emphasis should be on addressing conditions that allowed Covid-19 and other diseases to emerge.

“There’s a dilemma here. If you ban trade, you risk pushing it underground, where those dangerous conditions are likely to be prevalent – and realistically it’s just a matter of time before the next zoonotic disease risk emerges,” he said, speaking to Al Jazeera. “If you manage legal trade properly, the risk of disease emergence should be mitigated, but it needs to be thoroughly monitored and regulated.”

But there is no guarantee that thorough monitoring and regulation would ever take place and, under the circumstances, Robert Emerson, a strategic consultant, maintains “a black market is probably better than a grey market. At least in the black market people know the goods are illegal and should know there are risks involved. But in the grey market there could be confusion and people believing something is safe when it’s not.”

There is another problem now surrounding pandemics, largely between China and the US and some other countries – trust deficit and a burgeoning confrontation. “The talk of China paying reparations shows how far things have gone,” said Mr Emerson. “And when you have the Chinese government even denying that the coronavirus started there and saying it started in Europe or America, there is a disbelief in a lot of things they say. That is going to be a problem not just in the matter of food security and diseases, but other matters as well.”

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