China clamps down on bear farms and shark fins as animal welfare attitudes shift

Bear farming is increasingly regarded as unacceptable in China. Mu Chen/EPA

Chinese wildlife faces a serious survival crisis, but the tide seems to be turning in support for protecting endangered species there. China’s top legislative body has passed a new “interpretation” of their criminal law that will allow authorities to jail people who knowingly eat products made from rare wild animals. They could potentially face sentences of more than ten years.

Chinese consumption of wildlife has long been the target of external criticism. An explosion in wealth has created a swelling middle class with a voracious appetite for valuables, collectibles, luxury goods and exotic foods. Eating endangered species has become a status symbol, with government officials some of the main culprits. Now, support is growing within China against the way wildlife is treated and consumed.

Traditional attitudes

Chinese people have a reputation for eating anything with four legs that’s not a table. But the culinary sub-culture of eating all manner of creatures that was traditionally limited to South China and practised at times of extreme food scarcity, became a national passion with the country’s economic boom.

Traditional Chinese medicine has been used to justify a host of practices that exploit endangered animals in the wild and in captivity. Although China removed rhino horns and tiger parts from the active list of traditional ingredients in 1993, the belief in their “unparalleled healing power” remains alive among practitioners and members of the Chinese scientific community. Experiments in rhino farming and the controversial tiger farming can only sustain the belief in the unique medicinal effects of rhino horns and tiger bones.

Pangolin: an endangered Chinese delicacy. Rungroj Yongrit/EPA

Braised tiger meat, stewed monkey legs and bear paws, shredded pangolin, snake and turtle soup, and barbecued crocodile meat are sending traders to places as far as Russian Siberia, disputed waters of the South China Sea, North America, and the African Continent. Not only does Chinese wildlife face a serious survival crisis as a result, this appetite for endangered animals is a threat to wildlife everywhere.

Abused resource

China’s wildlife policy is contradictory. It adopted the Wildlife Protection Law in 1988. To critics, the law is more resource management legislation than a wildlife protection act as wildlife is designated as a natural resource. This places the focus on how it can best serve human consumption.

In the context of the national obsession with economic growth, wildlife has become an abused resource. At a local level, catering businesses that serve exotic foods and farming operations that brutalise captive wildlife animals are protected by local officials. The owner of a major bear farm in Northeast China was showered with all kinds of honours. He was made a deputy to the provincial people’s congress, the highest honour a business person can receive from the government.

The result is that more species have become endangered since the Wildlife Protection Law’s adoption and businesses exploiting endangered animals have thrived, seemingly with the law’s endorsement. Plus, trade across provinces has developed and now forms part of an international operation.

Changing attitudes

But China is changing and the new interpretation of China’s criminal law is a political step that reflects changing attitudes to the treatment of animals. To China’s increasingly vocal animal activists and members of its “one-child” generation, the exploitation of wildlife for human benefits is not only selfish and short-sighted, but also self-destructive.

Bear farming is one example where public opinion has experienced a sea change. In the early 1990s, bear farming was praised by the government, in the media, and in all other official propaganda programs as a production that saves wild bears, glorifies Chinese culture, serves the interest of public health, and contributes to poverty reduction and economic growth. Today, bear farming is condemned by the media and the public in general, largely as a result of efforts by the Animals Asia Foundation’s China Bear Rescue campaign.

The latest policy can also be seen as an important legal measure to support President Xi Jinping’s crackdown against extravagant consumption by government officials. Since the adoption of his austerity policy, shark fin consumption in the last Chinese New Year dropped significantly. Soon after the policy’s release, a provincial legislator was dismissed for possessing 33 ivory tusks and is under criminal investigation.

A wider animal protection movement is also gathering momentum and challenging patterns of eating that are promoted by business interests. It was response to public pressure that made the government halt the introduction of American rodeos and Spanish bull-fighting to the domestic Chinese audience. It was also public pressure that brought about the elimination of shark fin from official catering events.

Development in China is increasingly seen not just in economic terms, but in an appreciation for quality of life and a desire for the government to take a moral lead. Wildlife protection is a crucial component of this. As a rising superpower, the Chinese government’s actions for wildlife protection will not only enhance its legitimacy domestically, but internationally too.