China has clarified the wording of its legislation outlawing the consumption of endangered species. It remains to be seen if the law will be enforced, but the decision gives hope to those seeking to protect some of the world's most beloved species.
The 420 protected species covered by the law include South China tigers, golden monkeys and Asiatic black bears. Some are in demand as traditional Chinese medicines, others are food items and still others are status symbols. Sixteen men were recently charged with capturing and killing ten tigers as shows for wealthy patrons. Although the development of Viagra caused a drop in demand for products popular for fictitious aphrodisiac properties, the booming Chinese economy has more than offset that benefit.
“Buyers are a major motivator of large-scale illegal hunting,” said Lang Sheng, deputy head of the Legislative Affairs Commission of the National People's Congress. Sheng argued that China has repeatedly attempted to crack down on poaching, but had little success because demand remains strong. China is hardly alone in an appetite for threatened species, but as the largest consumer actions there could be the difference between survival and disaster for many species.
In many cases the species covered are now largely or entirely extinct within China and hunting continues in neighboring countries. Profiles of some of the lesser known species affected by the legislation were published prior to its passing.
Until now the legislation has been ambiguous as to what was considered criminal in regard to buying products of endangered species. Senior members of the Chinese Communist Party are alleged to be among the most enthusiastic consumers of some of the endangered species, so it remains to be seen how aggressively the law will be enforced. The new interpretation says that knowingly buying endangered animals or other species prey to illegal hunting is subject to a prison sentence of up to ten years.
The 420 listed species represent just the tip of the threatened iceberg, with China home to 6500 species of vertebrates, and many beyond its borders in demand. Moreover, critics have pointed out that it is still legal to breed these species in captivity , and this could provide cover – if tiger penis or giant salamander is found will the onus be on the police to prove it was hunted illegally, or on the seller to prove it legitimate? Nevertheless, progress is being made. A ban on shark fin soup and several other damaging foods at official dinners was introduced last December and it is thought actions like this may be starting to set an example.
A February crack-down saw three tonnes of ivory and over 1000 hides seized. The International Fund for Animal Welfare claims the illegal wildlife trade is worth at least $19 billion, making it the fourth largest illegal activity globally by value .