China’s Awful Animal Rights Created a “Perfect Storm” for Pandemics
Superstitious pseudo-medicine; conspicuous consumption of endangered species; government policies encouraging unhygienic, cruel wildlife farms; and disinterest in public health, e.g., not shutting down wild animal markets after SARS, are seen in countries around the world. But China’s dense population, rapidly increasing wealth, and world travel have amplified these factors to create a series of zoonotic epidemics: SARS in 2002, the recurring variances of avian bird flu over the past 25 years, and now COVID-19.
European colonialists destroyed much of the world’s animals, such as African elephants. But European colonization ended fifty years ago. Today the Chinese “generate most of the global demand for elephant ivory,” despite a 2017 government ban on ivory sales, according to the World Wildlife Fund: “Only about 415,000 African elephants remain in the wild today, and every year poachers kill at least 20,000.” Japan and some other Asian countries continue to allow ivory sales.
In 2018 China legalized the sale of tiger and rhinoceros parts for traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). TCM is a large part quackery. Middle-aged Chinese men believe that eating tiger penis will restore libido and sexual virility. Rhinoceros horns are believed to reduce fever and pains.
A TCM practitioner in Shanghai said that the market for tiger and rhino products is driven by rich customers to show off social status, rather than seeking relief from medical issues. “The sellers are there for the money and the buyers are there to show off. No one is there because they are ill. These products are so rare that they are either completely unavailable or completely unaffordable for normal people.”
An estimated 12,000 bears are kept in small cages which “which often prevent them from standing or sitting upright, or from turning around,” with tubes draining bile from their gallbladders. Bear bile is used in TCM, and most bile bears are in China, where the government licenses bear farms.
Monkeys are eaten in southern China as a “prized delicacy” and for TCM. A variety of infectious diseases can spread from apes and monkeys to humans. HIV-1 originated in chimpanzees and HIV-2 in sooty mangabey monkeys, both likely transmitted to humans via eating the wild animals. In contrast to COVID-19, HIV-1 jumped to humans sometime between 1902 and 1921 but it didn’t go anywhere until the 1980s, because central Africa was thinly populated and few people traveled to or from the region.
TCM and conspicuous consumption of so-called “delicacies” are driving other species to extinction. Yellow-breasted bunting populations have fallen 90% since 1980. “Consumer demand is fed by the belief that eating the yellow-breasted bunting bestows medicinal benefits and…dining on the endangered bird is also said to be something of a status symbol.”
“Delicacy” doesn’t mean a delicious food; it means a rare or expensive food. To Western gourmets wine is the only widely consumed rare or expensive food; caviar from the critically endangered beluga sturgeon was banned by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in 2005, and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in 2006. American “foodies” are more interested in trying regional and ethnic cuisines in which poor people ate the inexpensive parts of animals such as beef cheeks.
The Chinese giant salamander “is considered a delicacy in China” and is used in TCM.
Pangolins are the world’s most trafficked animal. All eight species are threatened with extinction. They are “a delicacy in southern China and Vietnam. There’s an unfounded belief in East Asia that ground-up pangolin scales can stimulate lactation, cure cancer and asthma.” Pangolins are suspected as the source of the new coronavirus.
SARS, the avian flu outbreak, and COVID-19 can be traced to “wet markets” where live animals, including endangered species, are sold and butchered. SARS originated in China in 2002, jumping from horseshoe bats in Yunnan province to civets, which were sold in markets. The new coronavirus is believed to have spread from bats to pangolins, then to humans from pangolins in “wet markets.”
Until a few weeks ago wildlife farming was promoted by the Chinese government as an easy way for rural Chinese people to get rich. Since the new coronavirus outbreak China has closed nearly 20,000 wildlife farms. The wildlife farms were notorious for poor hygiene and animal cruelty. The wildlife farms also made enforcement of laws banning the sale of wild-caught animals such as tigers, when the same species were allowed to be farmed and sold.
President Xi Jinping included the consumption of wild animals in a February 15 speech in response to the new coronavirus:
We have long recognized that the consumption of wild animals is very risky, but the “game industry” is still huge and poses a major hidden danger to public health and safety. Never be indifferent again! I have given instructions on this issue. Relevant departments should strengthen the implementation of laws, strengthen market supervision, resolutely ban and severely crack down on illegal wildlife markets and trade, resolutely eliminate the bad habits of overeating wildlife, and control major public health risks from the source. We must strengthen the construction of the rule of law, conscientiously evaluate the revision and improvement of laws and regulations such as the Law on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases, and the Law on the Protection of Wild Animals, and we must step up the promulgation of laws such as the Biosafety Law.
As China grows and expands economically, her people must wake up to their shared responsibility to the world and how best to carry it out.