Juvenile masked palm civet {Paguma larvata} captive, in cage, Cuc Phuong National Park, Vietnam.

Masked palm civets sold in markets in China were linked to the SARS outbreak in 2002.Credit: Matthew Maran/NPL

China’s top law-making body is expected to permanently tighten rules on trading wildlife in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, which is thought to have originated in a wild-animal market in Wuhan. Scientists speculate that this could include a ban on eating some wild meat.

Last month, the national government temporarily suspended the buying and selling of wild-animal products, which are commonly used for food, fur and in traditional medicines in China. But the emergency measure will be lifted once the outbreak ends.

Next Monday, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, the country’s highest decision-making body, will meet to decide how the trade in wildlife products should be regulated in the long term.

The outcome of the meeting will also set the tone for how the government might revise the country’s main wildlife-trade law — which currently only bans the trade of some rare and endangered species — later this year.

The coronavirus outbreak has drawn public attention to the significant health risks posed by eating wild animals. The government has signalled that it wants to take immediate action to prevent any future outbreaks of diseases that spread from animals to humans, says Li Zhang, a conservation biologist at Beijing Normal University.

As well as the current outbreak, wild-animal markets are the suspected origin of the coronavirus that caused the 2002 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, which also originated in China. And eating wild meat is thought to have been a source of the Ebola virus in Africa.

Conservation scientists speculate that on Monday the committee will ban the eating of wild animals, such as snakes and bats, but say that whether such a ban would extend to farmed wild animals, such as sika deer, is unclear. Researchers don't think that wildlife used for fur and traditional medicines will be affected. Any decision will be legally binding and will come into immediate effect.

Some researchers want a total ban on wildlife trade, without exceptions, whereas others say sustainable trade of some animals is possible and beneficial for people who rely on it for their livelihoods. Banning wild meat consumption could cost the Chinese economy 50 billion yuan (US$7.1 billion) and put one million people out of a job, according to estimates from the non-profit Society of Entrepreneurs and Ecology in Beijing.

Further changes

Later this year, law-makers will also meet at the National People’s Congress, where they will consider revisions to the country’s main wildlife-trade law, the Wildlife Protection Law. The annual Congress meeting, usually held every March to consider new laws, is expected to be postponed on Monday because of the coronavirus outbreak.

The Wildlife Protection Law, enacted in 1988 and revised in 2016, prohibits the hunting, killing, selling and purchasing of some 1,800 rare and endangered animals, except with special permissions, says Li. The pangolin, which scientists suspect could be the source of the new coronavirus, is already on this list.

But the laws are ambiguous about whether species not on the list can be traded legally, says Li. And the list has not been updated in 30 years, which means that species that have become critically endangered during that time, such as the yellow-breasted bunting (Emberiza aureola), are not protected.

Any decision on Monday will likely inform more detailed and extensive changes to the law, says Lu Zhi, a conservation biologist at Peking University in Beijing.

Lobbying efforts

Researchers, conservationists and other special-interest groups have been submitting proposals for Monday’s meeting, and these will also be considered in the revisions to the law.

Li says the government should unequivocally ban all wildlife trade and consumption because it is a direct threat to wildlife and a major public-health risk. His one exception is for the use of wildlife in scientific research.

Wang Fang, a conservation biologist at Fudan University in Shanghai, would like to see a ban on eating all wildlife. He also wants the government to extend the current restrictions on the hunting and poaching of rare and endangered animals to all animals, allowing for some exceptions.

Social impact

Trading in wild animals is a significant part of people’s livelihoods in China, says Xu Ling, director of the China office for TRAFFIC, a wildlife-trade monitoring network, in Beijing. Practices, including eating wild meat, keeping wild animals as pets, and using wildlife products for clothing, should continue to be regulated rather than banned outright, says Xu.

A total ban on trading wild animals would criminalize a substantial proportion of the Chinese population, and be untenable, says Zhao-Min Zhou, a wildlife-policy researcher at China West Normal University in Nanchong. And closing down animal markets would probably merely move the trade to the black market, he says.

If the government does continue to allow the trade of some species, these will need to be clearly defined, to ensure that enforcement is not arbitrary or discretionary. And more-rigorous inspection of marketplaces and breeding facilities for captive wild animals are also needed, Zhou says.