Teams in China are racing to discover which wild animal at a Wuhan food market was the source of the corona virus: snakes, pangolins or bats? We don’t know yet.
What is clear is how seriously China is now clamping down on the trade in wildlife. Recently, the country’s highest authorities enacted a permanent ban. “It is forbidden to hunt, trade and transport terrestrial wild animals that grow and reproduce naturally in the wild for the purpose of food,” says the new law.
For decades, campaigners have been calling for an end to wildlife markets in China, where animals, including those that are sick or disease-laden, are kept caged, often in poor conditions and near to people. Animal welfare is reason enough to ban them. The markets were also home to the huge under-the-counter trade in illegal fare, such as shark fins.
However, there are risks that prohibiting the markets could drive the trade underground, making the situation worse. After the outbreak of the SARS coronavirus, which, in 2002, also came from animals, legal markets were suspended, but people still bought wildlife on the black market and the virus still spread. Research has found that bans by Chinese authorities on live bird markets amid the 2013 bird flu outbreak led to the spread of that virus to uninfected areas.The problem was that different provinces implemented bans at different times, meaning poultry prices would be dented in one area, motivating traders to move infected animals elsewhere.
Fortunately, the new ban is on wildlife traded for food is different. It could encourage criminal activity, but if done well, it could limit the economic incentives that have seen some partial bans fail. It may also kick-start a generational change, as children won’t grow up with the wild animal trade, the legal markets for which were never well-regulated. Banning wildlife markets in China permanently won’t end the illegal trade but it will reduce it: a faint silver lining amid the crisis. (an edited version of an article by Adam Vaughan, New Scientist)