Permanently ban wildlife consumption

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Science  27 Mar 2020:
Vol. 367, Issue 6485, pp. 1434
DOI: 10.1126/science.abb1938

Although the origin of severe acute respiratory syndrome–coronavirus 2 (SARSCoV-2)—the virus that causes coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)—has not been identified, it is clear that China's wildlife market played an important role in the early spread of the disease (“Mining coronavirus genomes for clues to the outbreak's origins,” J. Cohen, News, 31 January, scim.ag/COVID-19genomeclues). On 24 February, China's National People's Congress adopted legislation banning the consumption of any field-harvested or captive-bred wildlife in an effort to prevent further public health threats until a revised wildlife protection law can be introduced (1). We argue that China needs to seize this opportunity and permanently ban wildlife consumption.

Since the 2003 outbreak of zoonotic SARS, China has established several management policies and regulations to control wildlife markets (2, 3). However, the vague definition of “wildlife” in the current policies and regulations results in enforcement confusion and loopholes. The current laws protect species of terrestrial and aquatic wildlife that are rare, beneficial, or economically or scientifically valuable (4), but they fail to differentiate captive-bred and wild populations. The sika deer (Cervus nippon), for instance, is a national, first-class protected species (5) and is also on the commercial breeding list (2). The indistinguishable differences between wild and captive populations provide opportunities for illegal bushmeat to be blended into exotic livestock and flow into the market (6).

Meanwhile, the protected species list has not been updated for nearly 30 years and covers only approximately two-thirds of the native wild species (2, 4, 5). The critically endangered spoon-billed sandpiper (Calidris pygmaea) (7) is still listed as a second-class protected animal (5). More than 1000 native species are absent from the protected list, including bats, which means that illegal hunting or trading of these species might not be punished and could threaten public health (4, 5).

Furthermore, penalties for illegal wildlife distribution and consumption are not sufficiently severe. Wildlife consumption is not restricted. Therefore, the demand for wildlife products remains high, with high profits and mild punishments driving the dealers (8, 9). In 2018, a man who poached about 8000 birds, including the critically endangered yellow-breasted bunting (Emberiza aureola) (10), was sentenced to pay only a US$10,000 fine (11).

The Chinese legislature should revise the wildlife protection law to ensure the effectiveness of the legislation. The definition of wildlife should be clarified as distinct from captive exotic populations. Meanwhile, a more stringent management plan for exotic livestock should be established, including an individual identification system, to increase the traceability of the exotic livestock products. The ability to technically distinguish captive from wild individuals will strengthen law enforcement. The list of protected species should be updated regularly, and all native wild species should be protected. The penalty for violating behavior should be increased, and wildlife consumption and possession should be treated as criminal offenses. Both the supply and demand sections of the wildlife trading chain should be strictly monitored and contained. China must act to permanently ban wildlife consumption in order to prevent future public health risks.

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