Although it is unclear which animal transferred the virus to humans — bat, snake and pangolin have all been suggested — China has acknowledged it needs to bring its lucrative wildlife industry under control if it is to prevent another outbreak.
In late February, it slapped a temporary ban on all farming and consumption of “terrestrial wildlife of important ecological, scientific and social value,” which is expected to be signed into law later this year.
But ending the trade will be hard. The cultural roots of China's use of wild animals run deep, not just for food but also for traditional medicine, clothing, ornaments and even pets.
But today dishes using the animals are still eaten in parts of China.
Public health experts say the ban is an important first step, but are calling on Beijing to seize this crucial opportunity to close loopholes — such as the use of wild animals in traditional Chinese medicine — and begin to change cultural attitudes in China around consuming wildlife.
Markets with exotic animals
The Wuhan seafood market at the center of the novel coronavirus outbreak was selling a lot more than fish.
It is somewhere in this mass of wildlife that scientists believe the novel coronavirus likely first spread to humans. The disease has now infected more than 94,000 people and killed more than 3,200 around the world.
The Wuhan market was not unusual. Across mainland China, hundreds of similar markets offer a wide range of exotic animals for a range of purposes.
The danger of an outbreak comes when many exotic animals from different environments are kept in close proximity.
“These animals have their own viruses,” said Hong Kong University virologist professor Leo Poon. “These viruses can jump from one species to another species, then that species may become an amplifier, which increases the amount of virus in the wet market substantially.”
When a large number of people visit markets selling these animals each day, Poon said the risk of the virus jumping to humans rises sharply.
Poon was one of the first scientists to decode the SARS coronavirus during the epidemic in 2003. It was linked to civet cats kept for food in a Guangzhou market, but Poon said researchers still wonder whether SARS was transmitted to the cats from another species.
“(Farmed civet cats) didn't have the virus, suggesting they acquired it in the markets from another animal,” he said.
Strength and status
Annie Huang, a 24-year-old college student from southern Guangxi province, said she and her family regularly visit restaurants that serve wild animals.
She said eating wildlife, such as boar and peacock, is considered good for your health, because diners also absorb the animals' physical strength and resilience.
Exotic animals can also be an important status symbol. “Wild animals are expensive. If you treat somebody with wild animals, it will be considered that you're paying tribute,” she said. A single peacock can cost as much as 800 yuan ($144).
Huang asked to use a pseudonym when speaking about the newly-illegal trade because of her views on eating wild animals.
She said she doubted the ban would be effective in the long run. “The trade might lay low for a few months … but after a while, probably in a few months, people would very possibly come back again,” she said
Beijing hasn't released a full list of the wild animals included in the ban, but the current Wildlife Protection Law gives some clues as to what could be banned. That law classifies wolves, civet cats and partridges as wildlife, and states that authorities “should take measures” to protect them, with little information on specific restrictions.
Attempts to control the spread of diseases are also hindered by the fact that the industry for exotic animals in China, especially wild ones, is enormous.
Since the virus hit in December, almost 20,000 wildlife farms across seven Chinese provinces have been shut down or put under quarantine, including breeders specializing in peacocks, foxes, deer and turtles, according to local government press releases.
It isn't clear what effect the ban might have on the industry's future — but there are signs China's population may have already been turning away from eating wild animals even before the epidemic.
A study by Beijing Normal University and the China Wildlife Conservation Association in 2012, found that in China's major cities, a third of people had used wild animals in their lifetime for food, medicine or clothing — only slightly less than in their previous survey in 2004.
However, the researchers also found that just over 52% of total respondents agreed that wildlife should not be consumed. It was even higher in Beijing, where more than 80% of residents were opposed to wildlife consumption.
In comparison, about 42% of total respondents were against the practice during the previous survey in 2004.
“The vast majority of people within China react to the abuse of wildlife in the way people in other countries do — with anger and revulsion,” said Aron White, wildlife campaigner at the Environmental Investigation Agency.
“I think we should listen to those voices that are calling for change and support those voices.”
Traditional medicine loophole
A significant barrier to a total ban on the wildlife trade is the use of exotic animals in traditional Chinese medicine.
Many species that are eaten as food in parts of China are also used in the country's traditional medicine.
The new ban makes an exception made for wild animals used in traditional Chinese medicine. According to the ruling, the use of wildlife is not illegal for this, but now must be “strictly monitored.” The announcement doesn't make it clear, however, how this monitoring will occur or what the penalties are for inadequate protection of wild animals, leaving the door open to abuse.
A 2014 study by the Beijing Normal University and the China Wildlife Conservation Association found that while deer is eaten as a meat, the animal's penis and blood are also used in medicine. Both bears and snakes are used for both food and medicine.
Wildlife campaigner Aron White said that under the new restrictions there was a risk of wildlife being sold or bred for medicine, but then trafficked for food. He said the Chinese government needed to avoid loopholes by extending the ban to all vulnerable wildlife, regardless of use.
“(Currently), the law bans the eating of pangolins but doesn't ban the use of their scales in traditional Chinese medicine,” he said. “The impact of that is that overall the consumers are receiving are mixed messages.”
The line between which animals are used for meat and which are used for medicine is also already very fine, because often people eat animals for perceived health benefits.
In a study published in International Health in February, US and Chinese researchers surveyed attitudes among rural citizens in China's southern provinces to eating wild animals.
One 40-year-old peasant farmer in Guangdong says eating bats can prevent cancer. Another man says they can improve your vitality.
“‘I hurt my waist very seriously, it was painful, and I could not bear the air conditioner. One day, one of my friends made some snake soup and I had three bowls of it, and my waist obviously became better. Otherwise, I could not sit here for such a long time with you,” a 67-year-old Guangdong farmer told interviewers in the study.
Changing the culture
Hong Kong virologist Leo Poon said the government has a big decision to make on whether it officially ends the trade in wild animals in China or simply tries to find safer options.
“If this is part of Chinese culture, they still want to consume a particular exotic animal, then the country can decide to keep this culture, that's okay,” he said.
“(But) then they have to come up with another policy — how can we provide clean meat from that exotic animal to the public? Should it be domesticated? Should we do more checking or inspection? Implement some biosecurity measures?” he said.
An outright ban could raise just as many questions and issues. Ecohealth Alliance president Peter Daszak said if the trade was quickly made illegal, it would push it out of wet markets in the cities, creating black markets in rural communities where it is easier to hide the animals from the authorities.
Driven underground, the illegal trade of wild animals for consumption and medicine could become even more dangerous.
“Then we'll see (virus) outbreaks begin not in markets this time, but in rural communities,” Daszak said. “(And) people won't talk to authorities because it is actually illegal.”
Poon said the final effectiveness of the ban may depend on the government's willpower to enforce the law. “Culture cannot be changed overnight, it takes time,” he said.