On April 8, China’s Ministry of Agriculture proposed a list of 31 terrestrial animals that farmers would be allowed to raise for food or other commercial purposes. The document is an official “white list” for Chinese breeders after the government banned the consumption of wildlife – wild-caught or farmed – in February.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, now with over 3 million confirmed cases and 200 thousand deaths worldwide, the Ministry of Agriculture has taken tough measures toward the wildlife market to prevent the resurgence of future diseases.
The list includes 18 types of “traditional” livestock and poultry – pigs, cows, water buffalo, yaks, sheep, goats, horses, donkeys, camels, rabbits, chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, pigeons and quail – along with 13 types of “special” livestock and poultry – deer, reindeer, alpacas, guineafowl, pheasants, partridges and ostriches.
Specifically, dogs are deemed as “companion animals” and excluded from the list of edible animals. So far, the cities of Shenzhen and Zhuhai have adopted stronger regulations, prohibiting the consumption of dogs and cats, with violators facing penalties of up to 10 times the value of the eaten animal.
The decision sparked a heated debate online, with some supporting the list while others arguing that dogs are “special” livestock in some areas, such as Guangxi Province, known for its annual Yulin Dog Meat Festival.
“Strictly speaking, there are no ‘dog eaters’ in China, but dog meat industry,” said Peter J. Li, an Associate Professor at the University of Houston-Downtown and a China Policy Specialist for the Humane Society International, in an interview with The Paper.
Li explained that based on his years-long research, he has never seen ordinary people protest against the lack of dog meat or ask the farmers to breed dogs for consumption. Instead, it’s the industry workers who call for protecting this kind of “traditional food.” He added that most mainland Chinese – 70% in a 2016 survey – have never eaten dog meat, while the other 30% tried once or a couple of times. Even in Yulin, Li learned that the dog meat festival has a history of 11 years and that most senior citizens have never heard of it when they were young.
Li is in strong favor of the decision, saying, “China intends to eliminate rabies by 2025, so banning the sale of dog meat will help achieve the national goal earlier.”
Unlike dog meat, which is usually tied to black markets and receives heavy criticism from conservationists, more wild animals have been bred following rules and regulations.
In 1988, the “Wildlife Animals Protection Law” first encouraged the breeding of wildlife as a means to alleviate poverty in some countryside. In 2004, there were more than 16,000 wild animal domestication and breeding farms nationwide, and the annual output value reached more than 20 billion yuan. According to a 2017 report, in 2016, there were nearly 14 million workers in China’s wildlife breeding industry which created an output value of over 520 billion yuan.
Yet, many wild animals are not included in the latest proposal, leaving breeders in limbo and at a huge loss.
Nie Ruixin, a porcupine breeder in Foshan, Guangdong Province, bought 400 porcupines before the Chinese Lunar New Year. Due to the tightened control amid COVID-19, the livestock was blocked on the road and he lost 300 thousand yuan. Nie is also unsure of what to do with the porcupines for a lack of compensation policy from the local government.
Wang Fang, a researcher at the School of Life Sciences, Fudan University, doesn’t think releasing the farm-bred wildlife to the field is a good idea. For one, once domesticated, animals are deprived of the ability to survive in the wild. Additionally, it remains unknown if they may carry viruses from humans back to nature and cause severe genetic pollution.
“If the government completely bans these commodities from being circulated in the market, the porcupines can only be killed,” Wang said.
Consequently, China’s National Forestry and Grassland Administration has issued an announcement that asked governments of different levels to help and guide breeders to transfer to new industries.
In Heyuan, Guangdong Province, for instance, with the help of local poverty alleviation officials, farmers have gradually abandoned breeding snakes, bamboo rats, porcupines, boars, bullfrogs, civet cats and sika deer, but switched to mushrooms, Chinese herbs, fish, wine and pigs cultivation.
Gao Guanxin, a bamboo rat farmer, said of the bamboo forests in his yard, “They used to be bamboo rats’ food, but in the future they will become a scenic spot for tourists.” Another farmer Zheng Junzao explained, “Compared to bamboo rats, fish has a lower profit, but we need a more stable and sustainable industry.”
On May 8, the Ministry of Agriculture is supposed to come up with a final list. Sun Quanhui, senior scientific advisor at World Animal Protection, an international nonprofit, suggested that the government should form a task force composed of zoologists, veterinary scientists, medical inspectors, animal welfare activists and law enforcement to better supervise the animal breeding industry and pay special attention to animal ethics.
“As the most important law in the field of wildlife protection, this revision must solve the deep-rooted problems; otherwise the result is likely to change the soup but not the medicine,” Sun said.