Almost the whole world is currently talking about the coronavirus, including researchers, doctors and scientists. Despite this, no one is certain how the coronavirus first infected humans. The most considerated theory is that the virus originated in bats and then jumped to another host in Wuhan’s wet market before infecting humans. Based on such theories, China banned the sale and consumption of wild animals in the country. However, recent reports reveal that China has put in place tax incentives to promote the export of wild animals even when their domestic trade is banned.
China promoting wild animal exports
A recent report from The Wall Street Journal, talks of a government document from March. The document reveals that Beijing has established tax breaks for animal exports, such as edible snakes and turtles, primate meat, beaver and civet, musk and rhino horns. As per the WSJ, China is promising a 9% rebate on the export of wild animals.
This move from China, though good for its economy, could put other nations at risk, which are still struggling to control the spread of coronavirus. A Congressional Research Service report, cited by the WSJ also says that promoting the export of wild animals “could spread the risk to global markets.”
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As per the WSJ, the U.S. was the biggest importer of China’s animal goods, amounting to about $1 million between January and February.
In February, China banned the sale and consumption of wild animals domestically. At the time, the authorities expressed concern that its “potential chance to public health and fitness has aroused extensive community problem.”
Even though the precise cause of the virus outbreak is yet to be identified, the Wuhan Institute of Virology found a 96% genetic match with a bat coronavirus. A separate study claimed that the snakes sold in Wuhan’s wet market are responsible for the outbreak. Moreover, the studies say these animals did not directly pass the virus to humans. Rather, it was passed to humans through an intermediary host like pangolins.
Pangolins, which are believed to be an intermediary host for COVID-19 are shy nocturnal animals. Even though pangolins and pangolin products are banned under the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) treaty, they are also the most trafficked mammals globally. Pangolin meat and scales are in huge demand for medicinal purposes in China.
Permanent ban on eating wild animals needed
There are debates inside China that it should make the temporary ban on wildlife trade a permanent thing. “We have had similar diseases caused by illegal wildlife trafficking and if we don’t ban the trade these diseases will happen again,” said secretary general of the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation, Jinfeng Zhou, according to The Guardian.
Also, China is a major market for trafficked animals. Thus, many believe a permanent ban would be a big win in the global fight against animal trafficking. China imposed a similar ban at the time of the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak in 2002-2003, but it was later lifted.
In an email to Mongabay, Benjamin Neuman, a virologist at Texas A&M University-Texarkana, said a permanent ban on the illegal animal trade by China would help make the world a “bit safer from viruses like SARS-CoV, and have a huge impact on wildlife conservation efforts.”
Seeing the health risks that wild animals pose, more people are now in favor of a permanent ban. Speaking to Reuters, a spokesman for the Chinese legislature’s Legislative Affairs Commission, said: “There has been a growing concern among people over the consumption of wild animals and the hidden dangers it brings to public health security since the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak.”
Growing voices in favor of ban
On the other hand, many fear that a permanent ban on animal trade would move the whole thing underground, making it even more challenging to track the source of any new infectious disease. Also, there are concerns that such a ban would face stiff resistance from those controlling this multibillion-dollar industry, which is also the source of livelihood for millions.
Official figures from China claim that wildlife trade and consumption was worth over $74 billion, and has given employment to about 14 million people over the past decade.
Nonetheless, strict regulations are needed to limit the animals’ trade. According to the WHO (World Health Organization), about three-fourths of all the recent epidemics could be attributed to animals.
In the U.S., Senator Lindsey Graham has come up with a campaign in Congress to push China to ban all wet markets. Also, Scott Morrison, the Australian prime minister, has asked the WHO and United Nations (UN) to ensure that China does not reopen these markets.
Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, United Nations’ biodiversity chief, is also in support of a ban on wildlife markets globally. Moreover, more than 200 animal and wildlife charities worldwide have urged WHO to push China to close all live animal markets.