Editor's note: On February 3, in a sign that China may be considering long-term action on its wildlife trade, the government's top leadership committee chaired by President Xi Jinping said in a statement that “it is necessary to strengthen market supervision, resolutely ban and severely crack down on illegal wildlife markets and trade, and control major public health risks from the source.”
This story had previously been updated to reflect the World Health Organization's declaration of a global health emergency.
On a farm near Beijing last September, a group of conservationists put in a call to police: They’d found thousands of live birds being stored in a barn. Police seized and released the birds—about 10,000 in all—which had been caught illegally with traps and were destined for restaurants and markets in southern China. Among them were yellow-breasted buntings, critically endangered songbirds whose numbers have been in freefall, largely because people in parts of China want to eat them.
The spread of a deadly strain of coronavirus, sourced to a wildlife market in Wuhan and now a global epidemic, has thrust China’s live wild animal trade into the spotlight. On January 26, China announced a ban on its wild animal trade until the crisis is over. Images of sick, suffering animals in markets, and videos of bats boiling alive in bowls of soup have circulated in media, sparking outrage globally and creating the impression that buying live wild animals for eating is a megascale phenomenon in China.
At the wildlife market in Wuhan, where the coronavirus outbreak began in December 2019, a worker carries a live salamander away after the market is shut down. PHOTOGRAPH BY FEATURE CHINA, BARCROFT MEDIA/GETTY
The reality is more nuanced. In Guangzhou, a city of 14 million in the southeast and a frequent destination for yellow-breasted buntings, eating wildlife appears exceedingly common. In Beijing, it’s exceedingly rare.
In reality, to many Chinese consuming wild animals is a cultural outlier. State-controlled media outlets such as China Daily have published scathing editorials denouncing the practice and calling for a permanent wildlife trade ban. These calls in turn are amplified by thousands of Chinese citizens on state-censored social media networks such as Weibo, indicating that the government seems to be letting the momentum build.
The scale of the live wild animal trade in China is unclear, experts say. Many animals are poached, imported, and exported illegally—for food, medicine, trophies, and pets. The Chinese traditional medicine industry, which heavily relies on ancient belief in the healing powers of animal parts, is a massive driver of the trade.
The government allows 54 wild species to be bred on farms and sold for consumption, including minks, ostriches, hamsters, snapping turtles, and Siamese crocodiles. Many wild animals, such as snakes and birds of prey, are poached and brought to state-licensed farms, says Zhou Jinfeng, secretary-general of the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation, an NGO in Beijing that helped with the bird rescue in September. Zhou says some farmers claim that their animals were bred legally in captivity for conservation but then sell them to markets or collectors.
Demand for pangolin scales, used in traditional Chinese medicine, has made the pangolin the most heavily trafficked non-human mammal in the world. PHOTOGRAPH BY FRITZ HOFFMANN, NAT GEO IMAGE COLLECTION
It’s unknown how many live wildlife markets exist in China, but experts estimate they could number in the hundreds. For buyers, frogs are a common and inexpensive wildlife dish, says Peter Li, China policy specialist at Humane Society International and professor in East Asian politics at the University of Houston-Downtown. On the high end, Li says, only the rich can afford soup made with palm civet (a cat-size mammal native to jungles throughout Southeast Asia), fried cobra, or braised bear paw.
Such food was not part of Li’s experience growing up. “My parents never cooked wild animals, and [we’ve] never eaten them. I’ve never had snake—much less cobra.”
Rebecca Wong, assistant professor of sociology and behavioral sciences at the City University of Hong Kong, argues in her 2019 book about the illegal wildlife trade in China that consuming wildlife “is a common phenomenon in mainland China.” But Wong cautions against stereotyping this practice, arguing that the idea of the “Asian superconsumer” is a myth and that complex motivations are at play, including peer pressure, societal pressure, and the impulse to chase status.
Live frogs are for sale at a market in Shanghai on January 26, the day the Chinese government announced a ban on the country's live animal trade in the midst of the coronavirus crisis. PHOTOGRAPH BY EDWIN REMSBERG, VWPICS/AP
A 2014 study that surveyed more than a thousand people in five Chinese cities found radically different practices in different parts of the country. In Guangzhou, 83 percent of people interviewed had eaten wildlife in the previous year. In Shanghai, 14 percent had, and in Beijing, just 5 percent. Nationwide, more than half the respondents said wild animals shouldn’t be eaten at all.
Same city, different cultural experiences
Charles, 22, and Cordelia, 18, are university students from the Guangzhou area, where wild animal consumption is purportedly high. I spoke with each through Instagram, where they use English names. (Both asked National Geographic not to use their last names—Instagram is banned in China, but like many young people, they use VPNs to access it.)
Charles says eating wild animals is very common in his community, but his family doesn’t partake much, and he eats only occasionally and out of curiosity. “Nowadays, older people buy them more than younger,” he says. He thinks it’s because of education.
Vendors in Beijing wear protective masks as they sell vegetables. A 2014 study found that only 5 percent of Beijing residents had eaten wildlife in the previous year. PHOTOGRAPH BY KEVIN FRAYER, GETTY
Cordelia, who lives in downtown Guangzhou, says the practice isn’t at all common in her family or community. “My friends and family don’t really like eating wild animals, and we think it’s disgusting.” She explains that she sees it as “disrespectful and a strong violation to mother nature.” She believes the ongoing epidemic may move others to see it that way too. “I think after this terrible spread of coronavirus, citizens will realize that the belief that eating wild animals is beneficial is not reliable.”
Cordelia and Charles both support making the ban on the wild animal trade permanent, and they say they’ve seen an outpouring of support for it on Weibo.
Cordelia’s mention that belief in health benefits drives consumption is reflected on market floors. Live animals sell for a higher price—often two to three times more—than dead ones. “People think food is more nutritious if it’s live and fresh,” Li says. “An animal may be dying, but it’s alive.”
A “cauldron of contagion”
In markets, animals “are dying, they are thirsty, they are in rusty cages and totally dirty,” Li says. They may be missing limbs or have open wounds from their capture in the wild or injuries sustained during transport. “The traders don’t handle them gently—they smash the cages down to the floor when unloading and loading. The animals suffer a lot.”
The chaos of the trade enables the spread of zoonotic diseases—those that spread from animals to humans—says Christian Walzer, chief global veterinarian at the U.S.-based Wildlife Conservation Society. Wild animals, he explains, can carry viruses that “in a normal world, would not come into contact with humans.” These carriers aren’t sick—they’re simply “silent reservoirs.” But as we encroach into animals’ habitats, we increase our exposure.
Seventy percent of zoonotic diseases come from wildlife, says Erin Sorrell, an assistant research professor in the department of microbiology and immunology at Georgetown University, in Washington, D.C. The diseases can be notoriously devastating: HIV, Ebola, and SARS are among those that have made the leap from wildlife to humans, spawning international outbreaks.
In wildlife markets in China and Southeast Asia, there may be 40 species—birds, mammals, reptiles—“stacked on top of each other,” Walzer says. The mixing of air and bodily secretions allows viruses to exchange, potentially creating new strains. Walzer sums it up as a “cauldron of contagion.”
Evidence points to bats as the source of the Wuhan coronavirus. It’s unclear which species then transmitted the disease to humans, but in an assessment of the Wuhan market, the coronavirus was detected in the live wild animal section.
Preventing déjà vu
Many conservationists I spoke to believe that China’s temporary ban of the wildlife trade—which applies to all markets, grocery stores, and online sales and includes a quarantine on all breeding facilities—is likely to be largely successful. The government has set up a hotline for people to report violations. “This is an emergency situation,” Peter Li says. “Everyone is watching. Any trader who violates the ban will be reported.” On top of that, fear of coronavirus likely reduces demand—even if sellers are willing to offer live animals illegally, people may not want to buy them.
China has resorted to a ban before. In 2003, at the height of SARS epidemic, which is believed to have originated in civets, the government issued a temporary ban on the wildlife trade. Six months later, it lifted the ban, allowing breeding facilities to resume business. Li says it’s difficult to say whether the overall live wildlife trade has grown during the past two decades, but he believes that more of the transactions have gone underground to evade law enforcement.
A caged civet is for sale at a market in southern China in 2003, at the height of the SARS epidemic. It's believed that civets transmitted the SARS virus to people. Today, civet soup remains a delicacy for some in China. PHOTOGRAPH BY AFP, GETTY
There’s always the risk that this could happen again, Sorrell notes. “There’s been a 15-to-16-year gap [since SARS], but who’s to say it’s going to be another 16 years before we see the next disease emerge from a live animal market?”
To make the temporary ban permanent, there would need to be clarification on what it actually encompasses. Some of its terms are vague, leaving them open to interpretation at the local law enforcement level. For example, does the ban include dried wildlife parts, such as bone and scales? It should, several experts tell me, but as written, it’s unclear.
A permanent ban would face strong opposition from business interests, Li says. The State Forestry and Grassland Department, which is responsible for issuing licenses to wildlife breeders, “has long been a spokesperson for the wildlife interest,” he says. (A forestry department official had not responded to a request for comment before publication.)
Sorrell emphasizes the need for caution in the pursuit of a permanent ban.
“I would love to see wildlife be removed from markets, full stop,” she says. But if a ban is rushed without careful consideration, the entire wildlife trade could move underground, making it “even more dangerous for [a product] to be consumed because we’re not seeing where it’s being consumed or where it’s coming from.”
“For any ban to be effective, it will be important to get buy-in from citizens,” adds Caroline Dingle, an evolutionary biologist in the conservation forensics lab at Hong Kong University, who studies wildlife crime. “People need to believe that consuming wild animals is bad for them personally for any ban to work long-term.”
If a permanent ban is adopted, Li says, it would be important for the government to buy out or compensate farmers to make it possible for them to pursue a different livelihood.
Meanwhile, for yellow-breasted buntings, verging on extinction because of recent rapid consumption, something more has to give. It’s already against the law to catch the birds, but that hasn’t slowed their trade.
For Cordelia, the 18-year-old university student from Guangzhou, life is at a standstill. School is closed, and she can’t visit her family. Reflecting on the biological crisis that emerged from a cultural practice she can’t relate to, she says, “I believe nature gives back to us what we give to it.”
But she draws my attention to the unity she’s seen in the wake of the crisis and the outcry on Weibo and in Chinese newspapers. “I think,” she types over Instagram, “revolutionary change is highly possible.”