Isaac Kasamani / Getty Images / WIRED
As if pangolins weren’t already in trouble. The scaly, insect-eating mammals suddenly attracted global attention after being identified as a possible culprit for transmitting the novel coronavirus to humans. The Covid-19 pandemic has consequently put wildlife trade, and in particular the consumption of wild meat, under the spotlight.
Though its origins remain unclear, scientists suspect that the Sars-Cov-2 virus causing Covid-19 leaped from horseshoe bats to another host animal, which in turn transmitted the virus to humans. On March 26, Chinese researchers reported a 99 per cent match between a virus found in Malayan pangolins and Sars-Cov-2. Whether the virus found in pangolins is responsible for the pandemic currently raging or not, the race to find the disease’s animal origins have exposed the perils of the global wildlife trade.
China’s wildlife trade, which is estimated to be worth around 520 billion yuan (£60 billion), is vast and complex – and replete with manifest legal loopholes waiting to be exploited by unscrupulous traffickers. Although favoured by many conservationists and campaigners, outright banning all wildlife products could simply push the trade underground. Instead, the National People’s Congress, China’s top law-making body, plans to revise how other wildlife industries, such as the exotic pet trade and farming for fur and leather, should be regulated in the long term.
“As Covid-19 spread, people became more aware of the wildlife trade. Everybody feels threatened by the health crisis,” says Linda Wong, deputy secretary-general of China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF), a non-profit organisation in Beijing.
The Chinese government has vowed to crack down on illegal wildlife trade in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. So-called “wet markets” first made headlines in January when a seafood market in Wuhan – selling both wild and farmed animals – was identified as the possible source of the outbreak. Coronaviruses are known to leap from animals to humans, so it is thought that the first people infected with the novel Sars-Cov-2 virus, mostly stallholders in the market, may have caught it from live animals.
On January 26, China slapped a temporary ban on buying, selling, and eating wild meat to curb the spread of the virus (which was made permanent on February 24) and began shutting down breeding farms across the country.
But because certain animals are used for both food and medicine, China’s ban on wildlife consumption may have created a medical loophole for illegal trafficking. In other words, people will stop eating pangolins, but they might still take a pill that contains pangolin parts. The notoriously difficult-to-breed pangolins are protected under international law, but smuggled in large quantities from Africa to Asia, where their scales are used for traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).
The coveted scales are made of keratin – the same material that makes up human fingernails. In 2019 alone, authorities seized 81 tonnes of pangolins scales, with the average size of shipments increasing from 2.6 tonnes to 6.2 tonnes over the previous year. On June 9, China’s Health Times reported the government had raised pangolins to the highest level of protection for endangered species (the same as pandas), with strict penalties for those caught killing or trading them, and officially removed the elusive animals from its list of approved ingredients used in TCM.
Timothy Bonebrake, a biologist at the University of Hong Kong’s conservation forensics lab, which helps law enforcement analyse wildlife seizures, welcomes the new measures. “The increased protection will, for example, increase the penalty for illegal trade of pangolins, which should serve as a deterrent. The unlisting from the pharmacopoeia is also an indication that there might be a reduction in demand for pangolin products,” he says.
But TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring group working in the region, points out that the situation is not as straightforward. While pangolins are no longer endorsed in the main text of China’s pharmacopoeia, their scales are still used in some of the patent medicines listed in the annex of the printed publication. So can or can’t they be used? Leopard bone and bear bile ended up in the same situation before and there is currently no legal procedure to stop the production of patent medicines.
Wild animals and their products are not only sold in markets and traditional medicine shops but are available for sale online, with video livestreams and online auctions particularly difficult to monitor. “It is hard with those developments of technology. It becomes more and more difficult to track online transactions for outsiders,” says Wong. Vendors use different online platforms to advertise their products and deliver them to the doorstep by courier services.
In March 2018, TRAFFIC, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), and WWF convened a coalition with 21 of the world’s biggest tech companies including Alibaba, Baidu, eBay and Google that pledged to reduce the availability of illegal wildlife trade on their platforms by 80 per cent by 2020. More than three million listings related to threatened species and associated products have been removed to date. Because many online listings feature pictures but no text, the IFAW and Baidu also launched an artificial intelligence tool in April 2020 that can identify images of products made of pangolin scales and claws, elephant ivory, and tiger teeth, skin and claws with 75 per cent accuracy.
“AI tools can help us track down illegal information that can’t be found through keyword search in the past. We are now identifying these accounts that publish illegal information across platforms through various methods, and promoting the law enforcement agencies and internet security departments to take punitive measures,” says Grace Gabriel, IFAW’s Asia regional director. In recent years, the non-profit organisation has come across ornaments and pendants made from pangolin claws and scales in its online investigations but TCM has been predominantly sold offline.
As the coronavirus pandemic unfolded, e-commerce platforms like Alibaba-owned Taobao also stepped up efforts to enforce China’s wildlife consumption ban. In the first month, they removed information relating to more than 750,000 wildlife products and closed 17,000 online stores or accounts, Liang Aifu, an official with the State Administration for Market Regulation said in a press conference on February 27. But the CBCGDF, which is working with e-commerce companies to tackle online wildlife crime, says the “self-regulation” efforts are not going far enough as most companies have not put in place any mechanisms to monitor ads in the long term.
“Back in January and February they actively removed ads, mainly because the wildlife trade became [an issue] for the whole society and the government urged them to do so,” says Wong. JD.com, China’s largest online retailer, monitors a list of related keywords. If a product name or description is found to have any of these words, the merchant will not be able to upload it. But tracking down merchants selling illegal products is complicated by the fact that they often change product names and advertise their products on different platforms, says Wong. “For example, we found a pangolin-related product and urged e-commerce platforms to off-shelve it, but later it appeared again with other names on other platforms,” she says.
To weed out wildlife crime from its root, the CBCGDF has been advocating for stricter enforcement through a social credit system that would require e-commerce platforms to set up a blacklist of sellers or buyers involved in illicit trade. Individuals who are reported after repeatedly violating regulations could face further negative consequences. Being on a blacklist could, for instance, affect their ability to get a loan, job or housing, although any sanctions would need to be agreed between local government agencies first.
On a corporate level, e-commerce platforms could also be assessed for their part in tackling the illegal wildlife trade in the same way they already are for their performance in environmental protection, tax payments, and product quality assurance. This means e-commerce platforms could be required to set up blacklisting and reporting mechanisms that help identify and block illegal activity. Xin Dai, an associate professor of law at Peking University Law School, says this could result in regulators blacklisting e-commerce platforms if they fail to carry out their legal duty. But this may not be particularly effective.
“The regulation of large e-commerce platforms in China has been carried out in the fashion that the key regulator interacts very closely and frequently with a limited number of big players,” says Dai. “There’s really not much need for the social credit system when the regulator knows exactly who’s there and how to make them listen. It’s more suitable for dealing with obscure players who otherwise easily hide their trail after violations.” China’s e-commerce law came into effect in January 2019 and made online retailers liable for the sale of counterfeit and knock-off merchandise on their platforms and required them to set up internal “credit systems” to protect consumers.
Since 2019, customers searching for wildlife prohibited for sale will also see a pop-up banner on JD.com discouraging the consumption of wildlife products. “During the epidemic period, due to the lack of searches for such products, the poster automatically was taken offline by the system. JD plans to refine and bring back the poster system in the future,” a spokesperson for the company says.
As for bringing pangolins back from the brink of extinction, the conservation biologist Bonebrake believes the pangolin trade will only stop once the demand fades. “There needs to be recognition that this is not sustainable, this isn’t workable,” he says. “Their continued uses in traditional Chinese medicine and other uses in Asia are really not sustainable. The pangolins can’t survive if the usage continues at this scale.”
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