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How outdated scientific names could help Chinese poachers kill with impunity

The endangered ‘fishing cat’ is known to scientists as Prionailurus viverrinus, but is Felis viverrinus in Chinese wildlife law. Gemma Simpson / shutterstock

How outdated scientific names could help Chinese poachers kill with impunity

What happens wildlife protection laws don’t keep pace with science? You can end up in a bizarre situation where an endangered species ceases to have any legal protection, thanks to an update to its scientific name.

This is an unintended consequence of the intersection between advances in taxonomy and genetics, intended to categorise species and biodiversity more precisely, with the objectives of conservationists and wildlife protection authorities. When these two disciplines fall out of synch, newly renamed species can lose their protection.

This may sound pedantic, even absurd, and it’s clearly against the “spirit” of policing the illegal wildlife trade. Yet if the accused find themselves on trial for smuggling a species that is no longer specifically named in the legislation charges are brought under, they may get away with it.

This is a particular risk for threatened species in China, as detailed in our latest research. The country is a hotspot for the illegal wildlife trade because animals and animal products are used for food and medicine, as objets d’art, or for pets. This trade is run by criminal cartels that are increasingly good at evading detection and punishment by, for instance, smuggling pangolin scales or disguising real elephant tusks within permitted consignments of quality synthetic ivory.

China’s outdated species names

China is especially exposed to taxonomic name changes because its native Protected Species List (PSL) has not been updated since it was first implemented in 1989. Animal science has moved on a great deal in the 27 years since, as new species have been discovered, and old ones have had their family trees or geographic distributions redrawn. Failure to update the names used on China’s PSL allows formerly-protected species to slip off, and also causes discrepancies with CITES, the international convention on illegal wildlife trade, and the IUCN Red List, the official register of endangered species.

Malayan pangolins: protected in spirit but not in law. Zhaomin Zhou, Author provided

For now, China still brings convictions under old species names, as given on the PSL, but once defence lawyers succeed in setting a precedent that these names are inaccurate (and they are trying) many threatened species will be at risk. At this point, appeals against current prison sentences are to be expected, with some perpetrators exonerated and even eligible for state compensation.

China’s protected list includes 79 mammal groups referred to by their common name (tigers, say) and by their scientific name (Panthera tigris). Of these, 18 threatened species have undergone taxonomic name changes that are no longer consistent with the legislation aimed at protecting them.

Scales seized in Hong Kong. But not all Manis species are protected under the current law. Jerome Favre / EPA

For instance, there is lot of demand for pangolin scales for traditional Chinese medicine. These cute, scaly animals are the world’s most-trafficked wild mammals, but only the Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla) is listed on China’s PSL as a native species. Currently, other pangolin species receive protection as exotic animals under international law. However, new data show that the Malayan pangolin (M. javanica) and the Indian pangolin (M. crassicaudata) are, in reality, also native to China. This means trafficking these two species no longer necessarily implies international trade, and thus no violation of the CITES treaty. Until they are added to China’s protection list, trade in potentially “native” Malayan and Indian pangolins is not, literally, in contravention of current legislation.

Law must keep up with the science

Another problem arises when a protected species becomes split into several newly recognised species. The goral, for example, is a small goat-like animal that lives in the mountains of south and east Asia:

Goral ahoy! s_jakkarin / shutterstock

The animal appears as “Naemorhedus goral” on China’s list. However, there are now three recognised species: the Himalayan goral (N. goral) in southern Tibet (still protected), along with two new unprotected species, the long-tailed goral (N. caudatus) and the Chinese goral (N. griseus), both of which are found in the country.

Similarly, the Chinese mainland serow (Capricornis milneedwardsii), a “goat antelope”, was elevated from sub-species status in 2005, leaving only the residual Sumatran serow, C. sumatraensis, on China’s protected species list. The legal status of the Northern pig-tailed macaque and the Siberian ibex are affected likewise.

Ambiguity is exacerbated when discrepancies arise between the scientific names on China’s protected list and those used internationally. For example, in Yunnan Province, 34 cases of Asian black bear trafficking or poaching have been prosecuted successfully using its Chinese name, Selenarctos thibetanus, although CITES calls this same bear Ursus thibetanus.

Similarly, the Asian golden cat is Felis temminckii on China’s protected list (the name used in two criminal cases in Yunnan) but known as Catopuma temminckii elsewhere. Other species with different names on the Chinese and CITES lists include the Eurasian lynx, the fishing cat, Eld’s deer and the hog deer. These naming differences hinder prosecutions and accurate data collection on the illegal wildlife trade.

The endangered hog deer can be found in Yunnan, southern China. Signature Message / shutterstock

So what can be done to remedy this bizarre situation? Although China lags behind many other nations in updating its protected species lists, this issue can afflict any country. All 181 CITES signatory nations should keep in step with the latest taxonomy. A database called “Species+”, used by the UN and the CITES secretariat to define the legal names, protected status, and distribution of all species, should become the standard for national legislation. This would allow wildlife enforcement agencies to all identify species to the same standard and alleviate trans-border inconsistencies.

In light of substantial worldwide attention to wildlife crime in China, its government is committed to a “zero tolerance policy” and is consulting on the revision and amendment of existing wildlife laws. This is a decisive opportunity to close those taxonomic loopholes, and save China’s endangered species.

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