Consumers of endangered animal products in China face a risk of considerable jail time after the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress reinterpreted existing criminal laws last week to put greater pressure on those who eat or purchase protected species.
Chinese law makes it illegal to hunt and buy any of the country's 420 protected endangered species, which include Asiatic black bears, South China tigers, golden monkeys, and giant pandas. But the statutory language is highly ambiguous.
The change adopted by the Standing Committee redefines what it means to purchase endangered species, making it illegal for anyone to knowingly buy or consume animals that were poached. The aim of the law is to crack down on the demand for endangered species, which are widely used in traditional Chinese medicine. Various animal parts are thought to offer assorted health benefits, like preventing cancer or relieving back pain.
Many of these species are also valued as a mark of status. Consumption has boomed in tandem with the country's economy, and the demand has encouraged large-scale illegal hunting.
'Rhino horn and deer musk can be more valuable than gold or cocaine.'
While activists would prefer the language of the protection statute to be strengthened, they welcome the new interpretation.
"This is very good in its own way," Grace Gabriel, the Asia director at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), told VICE News. "This interpretation is finally making it illegal to knowingly consume endangered species and their products."
An IFAW report on the illegal wildlife trade says that it's the fourth most profitable criminal activity in the world, after drug smuggling, financial counterfeiting, and human trafficking. China is the world's largest consumer of illegal wildlife products, which include rhino horn, bear bile, and tiger bone.
Profits for endangered species and their body parts are sky-high. Ivory can go for $1,000 a pound on the streets of Beijing, and the pangolin — an anteater whose scales are used to disperse blood stasis and promote pus discharge, and whose meat is considered a delicacy — can fetch up to $324 a dish at local restaurants. A report published in March noted that the pangolin is the world's most heavily trafficked endangered animal.
According to the IFAW report, rhino horn and deer musk can be more valuable than gold or cocaine. A single gland from Asia's musk deer can fetch upwards of $250. The musk is used for cardiac, circulatory, and respiratory problems.
The belief that consuming certain animals enables the absorption of their attributes has endured throughout Chinese history.
Nearly every part of a tiger's body is believed to offer some sort of health benefit. Its blood is thought to build willpower, and its bones are said to have an anti-inflammatory effect capable of treating arthritis, headaches, and all manner of swelling. Its eyeballs are used to ease epilepsy, malaria, and cataracts. The tiger's penis is particularly prized as an aphrodisiac, and is commonly prepared by soaking the dried member in water and then simmering it with herbal ingredients.
Virtually nothing is spared: tiger fecal matter is regarded as a remedy for hemorrhoids and alcoholism.
But the tiger is merely one prominent example. Bile from Asiatic black bears is used to treat liver ailments, tapeworm, and colds, among other maladies. The bile is gathered through a painful and inhumane extraction process; the bear is tightly confined in a "crush cage" as a catheter implanted in its gall bladder drains the bile out. Thousands of bears are kept in bile farms across China. Most of them are Asiatic black bears that were illegally caught as cubs. Animal rights activists have long railed against this cruel enterprise, which persists despite the endangered status of the bears.
China's purported wildlife protection laws have done little to limit the exploitation of these animals. While hunting tigers and black bears in the wild is illegal, the government has sanctioned the development of farms that breed these species in captivity on the assumption that they reduce poaching.
Under Chinese law, an animal is categorized based on how endangered it is. Because the Asiatic black bear doesn't have class-one protection status, it's legal to farm it and extract bile. The situation is worsened by the fact that China doesn't ban animal cruelty.
In the case of the tiger, the farms nominally operate as wildlife parks, but these businesses can legally utilize and sell the animal's parts. The loophole has undermined a putative ban on the trade, which the state doesn't really enforce.
"On one hand, the government says don't buy these products, but wildlife parks sell tiger wine and people think it must be okay," Gabriel said. "These parallel markets allow farmers to sell products from endangered species. It confuses the consumer and creates the possibility for people to traffic wild tigers."
While the use of endangered species still persists in Chinese medicine, Lixin Huang, the president of the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine, told VICE News that the field has been very responsive to campaigns against consuming endangered species.
Huang explained that Chinese medicine takes two forms in China: one sector is state regulated and mindful of endangered species regulations, and the other is a consumer-driven market for what she called "socialized nutrition," which isn't monitored.
"With the use of rare species by that kind of consumer, education needs to be really strong because they still hold their own beliefs from the old ways," she said.
IFAW polls have uncovered a surprising lack of public awareness in China regarding endangered species products. In one survey, 70 percent of respondents didn't know that ivory comes from dead elephants.
"A lot of the consumers don't realize what they did was wrong," Gabriel said. "They say, 'If I didn't kill it, if it's on the market, then what's wrong with me buying it?' There's no stigma attached with wildlife consumption."
Demand in China is increasingly driven by affluence.
"Wealth-driven demand is going up," Gabriel noted. "It's not replacing health-driven consumption, but is certainly overtaking it."
In March, suspected gang members were arrested in the southern Guangdong province for operating a criminal ring that bought and slaughtered tigers. The meat and other products were sold to wealthy people and government officials. The act of slaughtering the animals has become a sport, with wealthy customers eager to observe the killings.
Most online animal listings that organizations like IFAW are seeing are not for health. Tiger bone wine is sold for upwards of $1,000, well beyond what an average consumer can afford. Rhino horns, long a staple of traditional Chinese medicine, are now more commonly coveted for carvings.
"For those in this for greed, the only way to stop it is if you have tighter laws and enforcement of the laws," Gabriel said.
The new interpretation of the endangered species statute is seen as just a first step in China's conservation efforts, though many observers are justifiably skeptical of its effectiveness.
"This change is really reflecting, to a certain level, more support for endangered species in China," said Huang. "But there are still challenges. You can have the law, but law enforcement is another issue. Are they going to enforce the policy?"
China's 1988 wildlife protection law is expected to be updated sometime in the next two years, and activists are cheered by indications that its citizens are increasingly receptive to such measures. E-commerce sites now monitor and block sales of endangered species, and an awareness campaign targeted at auction houses led many of them to remove rhino horn, tiger bone, and ivory from their sales, keeping $322 million in contraband off the market.
"This is very encouraging," Gabriel said. "The Chinese public actually supports stronger wildlife protection laws and stronger policy of the trade of endangered species."
Photo via Wikimedia Commons