Nearly 20,000 wildlife farmsraising species including peacocks, civet cats, porcupines, ostriches, wild geese and boar have been shut down across China in the wake of the coronavirus, in a move that has exposed the hitherto unknown size of the industry.
Until a few weeks ago wildlife farming was still being promoted by government agencies as an easy way for rural Chinese people to get rich.
But the Covid-19 outbreak, which has now led to over 1,800 deaths and more than 72,000 known infections, is thought to have originated in wildlife sold at a market in Wuhan in early December, prompting a massive rethink by authorities on how to manage the trade.
China issued a temporary ban on wildlife trade to curb the spread of the virus at the end of January and began a widespread crackdown on breeding facilities in early February.
The country’s top legislative officials are now rushing to amend the country’s wildlife protection law and possibly restructure regulations on the use of wildlife for food and traditional Chinese medicine.
The current version of the law is seen as problematic by wildlife conservation groups because it focuses on utilisation of wildlife rather than its protection.
The coronavirus epidemic is swiftly pushing China to reevaluate its relationship with wildlife, Steve Blake, chief representative of WildAid in Beijing, told the Guardian. There is a high level of risk from this scale of breeding operations both to human health and to the impacts on populations of these animals in the wild.
Further instructions from the National People’s Congress are expected next week to give authorities more tools to enforce the ban and restrict trade until the law is amended.
For the past few years China’s leadership has pushed the idea that wildlife domestication should be a key part of rural development, eco-tourism and poverty alleviation. A 2017 report by the Chinese Academy of Engineering on the development of the wildlife farming industry valued the wildlife-farming industry those operations at 520bn yuan, or £57bn.
There is little detail available about the animals farmed across China, but local press reports mention civet cats, bamboo rats, ostriches, wild boar, sika deer, foxes, ostriches, blue peacocks, turkeys, quails, guinea fowl, wild geese, mallard ducks, red-billed geese, pigeons, and ring-necked pheasants.
Neither do reports offer much detail about the shutdowns and what is happening to the animals, although Blake said he does not think animals are being culled, due to issues over compensation.
Chen Hong, a peacock farmer in Liuyang, Hunan, said she is concerned about her losses and whether she will get compensation after her operations were suspended on 24 January.
We now aren’t allowed to sell the animals, transport them, or let anyone near them, and we have to sanitise the facility once every day, Chen said. Usually this time of year would see our farm bustling with clients and visitors.
We haven’t received notice on what to do yet, and the peacocks are still here, and we probably won’t know what to do with [them] until after the outbreak is contained.