China, a country of 1.4 billion people, has been the epicentre of several deadly global outbreaks in recent years — Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), bird flu, and now the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).
Diseases such as COVID-19 are zoonotic, meaning they are transmitted between animals and people. Other diseases such as HIV, Ebola, and anthrax are also zoonotic.
According to the World Health Organisation, the SARS-CoV was transmitted from civet cats to humans,and MERS-CoV from dromedary camels to humans. Researchers are yet to conclude how COVID-19, which was first detected in China’s Wuhan, originated.
Many believe that the reason lies in the “wet markets” dotting cities across China, a country which has 50% of the world’s livestock — where fruits, vegetables, hairy crabs and butchered meat are often sold next to bamboo rats, snakes, turtles, and palm civets.
Coronavirus and China’s wildlife
According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in China, the country is one of the mega-biodiversity countries in the world, harbouring nearly 10 per cent of all plant species and 14 per cent of animals on earth.
Having 6.5 per cent of the world’s territory, the country is home to 14 per cent of the world’s vertebrates, 20 per cent of fish species, 13.7 per cent of birds, 711 mammal and 210 amphibian species.
The most famous species unique to China include the giant panda, South China tiger, golden-haired monkey, and the Chinese river dolphin. Species found in other countries, such as pangolins, Asiatic elephants, Asiatic brown and black bears, Siberian tigers, Mongolian gazelles, also inhabit China.
Wild animals as food
Wildlife eating is practised across China. Animal parts are also used for medicinal purposes, with traders legally selling donkey, dog, deer, crocodile and other meat.
It is widely accepted that one of the reasons why wildlife consumption became popular in China is the Great Leap Forward, an economic and social campaign enforced by dictator Mao Zedong between 1958 and 1962.
While the objective of the programme was to transform China from an agrarian economy to an industrialised state, a brute implementation of maligned policies led to the deaths of an estimated 18 million to 45 million people due to starvation, disease, and violence.
Food shortages reigned during this era. In a 2007 paper in the journal China Information, Peter J Li, a researcher at the University of Houston-Downtown, says, “To tide over the man-made “tyranny of scarcity,” government offices, soldiers, and ordinary citizens went on a hunting spree of indiscriminate killing.”
In the year 1960, 62,000 deer were wiped out in the Sichuan province, and the Mongolian gazelle was hunted to near extinction.
Wildlife eating, which was originally practised by a limited number of people in southern China, spread to the rest of the country. Around this time, small farmers turned to rearing wild animals, such as snakes, bats, and turtles, as a means of sustenance, according to Vox.
In 1988, China enacted the Wildlife Protection Law, which declared that wildlife resources would be owned by the state. The law also provided legal protection to those engaged in wildlife rearing, and said that the state would encourage the breeding and domestication of wild animals.
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The country went on to have the world’s largest wildlife domestication operation with a wide variety of animals, as the government encouraged people to escape poverty. Later, even animals such tigers and pangolins, whose trade was illegal, entered the wet markets.
Wildlife has since been a part of the country’s culinary culture, with the industry promoting these animals as having medicinal, aphrodisiacal, body building properties.
According to the South China Morning Post, the wildlife trade and consumption industry in 2017 was worth $ 74 billion, employing more than 14 million people.
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