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Coronavirus Prompts China to Change Environment Law on Wildlife

Feb. 27, 2020, 2:35 PM

China is changing the country’s primary law on endangered species and wildlife trade in response to the coronavirus, which is thought to have spread from a market in Wuhan where live animals were sold for their meat, officials said this week.

The biggest change is a ban on the sale and consumption of most wild animals, but changes to the Wildlife Protection Law of 1989 will also affect hunting, trade, and transport of animals. Updates to the law will be completed this year, top legislative officials said in a statement.

Wildlife trading, including in endangered pangolin, tiger, and rhinoceros, is big business in China, and the ban will include notable loopholes for the use of wildlife for fur, leather, and traditional Chinese medicine.

Baker Botts attorney Jeffrey H. Wood, who worked extensively on wildlife trafficking issues in his former role as acting head of the U.S. Justice Department’s environment division, said the U.S. has for years pushed China to enhance its wildlife trade laws and enforcement.

Wood said he’s hopeful the crisis will prompt meaningful changes, but added that China’s track record in the area isn’t reassuring.

“China has announced various measures in the past to curb the illicit wildlife trade but following through completely on those commitments has been a cause for concern,” he said. “We can hope this new epidemic will lead to more lasting changes.”

‘Very Good Development’

David Fein, who is general counsel for London-based Standard Chartered Bank and vice-chair of the United for Wildlife Financial Task Force, said he’s encouraged by China’s increased focus on combating wildlife trafficking.

“I can’t help but think that’s a very good development, and a real one,” he said of plans to crack down on illegal trade in response to coronavirus.

Fein, a former U.S. attorney, noted that the move coincides with China’s leadership of the multigovernment Financial Action Task Force, which has named wildlife trafficking as a priority in the body’s broader efforts to combat financial crimes.

“From the financial community,” he added, “this is significant because it is an overlooked but substantial financial crime estimated as much as $23 billion a year.”

14 Million Workers

A Chinese Academy of Engineering 2017 study of the wildlife animal industry put the total value on the meat and fur-leather portions of the industry alone at around $74 billion. The industry reportedly employed 14 million full- and part-time workers, according to that study, the most comprehensive of its kind.

China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee, which approves national laws, acknowledged that the size of the industry played a role in loopholes for wildlife breeding to continue, including for pigeons and wild rabbits.

“The value [of the industry] and the amount of employment it creates is also at a certain scale, and this has played an important role in fighting poverty,” said Yang Heqing, deputy director of the Economic and Law Office of the NPC, in a statement.

But Li Shuo, a campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia, said the loopholes leave China vulnerable.

“Anyone hoping for a one-off solution will be disappointed,” he said. “It’s fair to say just by this new decision we will not rule out the chance of a coronavirus 2.0 in future.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Michael Standaert in Shenzhen, China at; Ellen M. Gilmer in Washington at
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at; Anna Yukhananov at