For some very wealthy Chinese, you’re considered a big shot if you can afford to buy and eat a rare animal. It’s considered quite a status symbol to put an endangered species on your plate for dinner. Up to now, these status seekers have been able to get away with it. That’s about to change.
China is stepping up its increasingly impressive efforts on behalf of animal welfare. Over the last few years, China has made great strides. Poaching is now illegal, live animal performances at zoos are forbidden, ivory has been seized and destroyed, official functions no longer offer shark fin soup on the menu, and animal testing for cosmetics is on its way out.
Recently, China decided to double down on efforts to protect its precious rare animals. In addition to punishing poachers, China says it’s time to pursue poachers’ customers with a vengeance.
420 Endangered Species: How Did China Get to This Point?
For generations, many Chinese have considered certain animals to be culinary delicacies. If it’s rare and expensive, it’s a sign of status to be able to eat it. Ridiculous, yes — but unfortunately not an uncommon trait around the world.
Additionally, the meat, organs and bodily fluids of other rare creatures are believed to possess important traditional Chinese medicinal properties.
These cultural inclinations resulted in voracious consumption of things like bear paws, rhinoceros horns, shark fins, deer musk, tiger penises, pangolin scales, tiger bones, and of course ivory.
As wealth increased in China, demand for the finer things in life went up as well. Some of those “finer things” included animal delicacies, aphrodisiacs and medicines. High demand will always find what it wants, if the price is right. Poachers are more than prepared to do what’s needed to meet that demand. The tragic result is that more and more animals die to feed this lucrative, illegal market.
Sadly, as the decades went by, these practices drove many of these in-demand animals to the brink of extinction. China lists 420 animals as endangered, including the golden monkey, the asiatic black bear, the pangolin, the golden coin turtle, the monitor lizard, and the beloved and iconic giant panda.
A staggering number of Chinese — perhaps up to 70 percent — have no idea their purchases of these products have decimated their country’s endangered species.
“A lot of the consumers don’t realize what they did was wrong,” Grace Gabriel, the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s Asia director, told VICE News. ”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.”
Reduce Demand by Punishing the Consumer, Too
Efforts to curb poachers haven’t been especially successful so far, so China is expanding its focus to include the poacher’s customers as well.
The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress decided on April 24, 2014 to “reinterpret” the existing law in a way that squarely allows authorities to go after consumers. Previously, the ambiguous wording of the law made it problematic to punish those who bought illegally poached animals or animal products.
Today, anyone who knowingly eats an endangered animal or buys it for other purposes is illegally “trading” under the law. Such persons face between five and 10 years in prison.
“The law has always been there, but the interpretation has cleared up the ambiguity,” Cheryl Lo, a spokesperson for the World Wide Fund for Nature, told CNN. “Now it is clear that consumers have to bear responsibility. But we still have to watch if they will actually enforce and execute on the legislation.”
China Still Has a Long Way to Go
While this revised interpretation of China’s law is a welcome development, China can do more — much more. Some fear this reinterpretation of the law will be difficult to enforce because it’s still legal to buy meat, skins and a wide variety of other products developed using the bodies of captive-bred rare animals.
Take, for example, tiger farms that breed tigers in captivity for their parts. Under Chinese law it’s still perfectly acceptable to buy the products produced from these awful facilities. This is true even though the same products, if taken from wild animals, would be illegal contraband. Confusing and nonsensical? Yes, and it needs to stop.
Keep the reforms coming, China. You’ve shown you can do it. Now go the extra mile and protect all your animals from these unreasonable and cruel practices.
Photo credit (all images): Thinkstock