What is ‘wildlife’ and should people be allowed to eat it? Those are two of the questions for the policymakers charged with preventing outbreaks of coronavirus-like infections in future.
As many readers will know, Covid-19 is a zoonotic disease, meaning it originated in animals – in this case probably bats – and then made the leap to humans, probably via intermediary animals such as bamboo rats, badgers or pangolins.
How the virus makes that jump is unclear, but closer proximity to people through hunting, farming or selling the animals as livestock is the most likely route, experts say.
The Chinese government has subsequently issued a series of bans aimed at preventing the consumption of all but 159 formally approved animals as food. But hastily-prepared diktats can be poorly written and sometimes clash with policies set at local government level.
The result is that many people are asking which kinds of wildlife are now officially off the menu.
“Does this mean we can’t eat bullfrogs now?” asked one Sina Weibo user. “What if a wild animal has been bred for consumption,” asked another.
The breeding of wild animals for food, medicine and other products has exploded in recent years, generating annual revenues of at least Rmb520 billion ($74.39 billion), according to a 2017 government report.
In many areas local governments have even been encouraging the rearing of deer, quail and rabbits as a supplement to low rural incomes. The central government ban on February 24 applies to many of these animals.
But some officials have since softened their stance, saying the goal is now to “seal off” and “clean up” breeding centres, and to shut down all of the illegal markets selling wild animals as food.
People who raise bamboo rats and badgers will also have to be tested for the coronavirus, an official with the National Forestry and Grassland Administration said, because these animals are known to carry the infection.
Those who rear crocodiles, snakes and insects (such as crickets and cockroaches) are still waiting for clarification of their status under the new rules.
“We are facing an uncertain future,” the owner of a chain of snake restaurants, told Canbaodian, a catering industry magazine.
Critics of the government say that it has issued bans like these before, but failed to enforce the regulations in an effective way.
During the SARS outbreak of 2003 it called a halt to sales of a range of wild animals and their meat but within six months many of the restrictions were rescinded – including one outlawing the farming of masked civets, the likely source of the SARS virus.
This time the language appears to be stronger in ordering an end to the practice. Last month Chinese leader Xi Jinping warned the Politburo Standing Committee that the wildlife industry posed a “major” danger to public health and safety. “We should never be indifferent again… Relevant departments should resolutely ban and severely crack down on illegal wildlife markets and trade, resolutely eliminating the habit of eating wild animals,” he demanded.
State news outlets have followed suit with the People’s Daily publishing a three-part editorial decrying the consumption of wild meat as “vain” and “greedy”.
It went on to say that it was “fake” to claim that wild animal meat is nutritious – a belief held by many Chinese. “Modern people must look like modern people and live modern lives,” it added.
The China Daily went further in warning against the custom. “It only shows you are inferior and that you are arrogant, ignorant and barbarous,” it wrote.
So perhaps this time it really will be different and the ban will be vigorously enforced…
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