Seeing animals as a resource is a cruel substitute for real wildlife protection in China
Peter Li says a draft revision to Beijing’s wildlife protection law remains focused on the utilisation of animals for human benefit, and thereby fails to protect them in any meaningful way
This month, the National People’s Congress is soliciting public comments on four draft laws. One is the revision of the Wildlife Protection Law, which came into effect in 1989. Ironically, the law, supposedly designed to protect wildlife species, has witnessed the enormous rise of a wildlife exploitation industry unlike anything in China’s past.
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In 2003, the State Forestry Bureau, the national government agency responsible for enforcing the law, announced glowingly that China had succeeded in domesticating 54 wildlife species as an accomplishment of implementing the law. Indeed, more Asiatic black bears have been farmed in cages for bile extraction since the law’s adoption than before. Thousands more tigers have been raised in cages in northeast and southwest China. Does wildlife farming equal wildlife protection?
It is no secret that China is the main destination of global ivory trafficking. Reports over the past two years have also found that Chinese zoos and other institutions have been importing protected species for display and other purposes. Chinese trophy hunters and buyers are eyeing African lions and Canadian polar bears.
Criticism of the toothless legislation has been heard by authorities. In September 2013, the NPC decided to put a revision of the law on the legislative agenda. The draft revision released for public comment is the result of that decision. However, the revision is a far cry from the wishes of wildlife experts, animal conservationists and other parties that have a stake in a new and enforceable law.
The original law is a product of the prevailing mindset at the time that “protection has to serve the objective of economic modernisation”. Thus, wildlife was defined as a “natural resource” to be used for human benefit.
To Beijing’s Capital Animal Welfare Association, the draft revision remains a “resource utilisation law”. The term “wildlife utilisation” appears eight times in the current law. Yet it appears 24 times in the revision. Similarly, “wildlife domestication and breeding” appears 11 times now; in the draft, it is repeated 25 times.
Admittedly, wildlife use cannot be avoided completely. Yet the association believes wildlife use would have no place if the following eight situations were included: if such use damages the ecological balance; if animals are tortured; when substitutes are available; if it goes against public morality; misleads the public about wildlife; damages the country’s reputation; promotes misguided consumption; and, encourages transnational wildlife crime.
China has no anti-cruelty legislation. Critics expected the draft revision to contain provisions against cruelty to wildlife, but it is silent on the issue. If this draft revision comes into effect, inhumane farming practices will continue, random violence carried out on zoo animals will go unpunished, and animal performances, photo-ops with tethered animals and live feeding – publicly condemned cruelty to captive wildlife – will go on as usual.
The draft revision has fallen far short of the expectations of the Chinese public for an enforceable and truly “protective” law. The revision efforts are, in the words of one Beijing scholar, “window dressing”. The mindset of “protection cannot be divorced from utilisation for human benefits” seems to have guided the effort. Clearly, the draft revision fails in its response to the party’s ambition of building an “ecologically civilised China”.
China’s reputation as a responsible stakeholder in global wildlife protection efforts calls for Beijing to move beyond the concept of wildlife as a “natural resource” and enact a real “protection law”.
Peter J. Li, PhD, is associate professor of East Asian politics at the University of Houston-Downtown and a China policy specialist at Humane Society International. [email protected]