The outbreak of a novel coronavirus has brought back many memories of the severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic in 2002-03, not least because of their apparent association with the sale and consumption of exotic animals . This time, the virus appeared to have originated from a market in Wuhan , a city of 11 million residents in central China. Visiting a market in Guangzhou in 1996, I thought I was touring a zoo: peacocks, squirrels, foxes, snakes, monkeys, dogs, civets and lots of caged cats, all alive. During the Sars outbreak, researchers linked the spread of the disease to civet cats in a market in Guangdong province, although it originated in bats . The Sars outbreak killed 813 people worldwide and infected 8,437 in total. The latest coronavirus not only calls into question the Chinese government’s management of a public health crisis, but also reignites a national debate about the consumption of wildlife. Many are asking why the wild animal trade wasn’t banned after Sars. On January 21, the State Administration for Market Supervision, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, and the National Forestry and Grassland Administration jointly issued an “emergency notice” on strengthening the supervision of wild animal markets and improving epidemic prevention and control . The notice requires all provincial and local regulators to strengthen the inspection and quarantine in accordance with the provisions of the Wildlife Protection Law and forbids the sale of wild animals that have not been certified. Five days later, the government implemented a temporary ban of the wildlife trade , which will be in place until the current epidemic is under control. While this swift measure is commendable, can it address the long-standing problem? Wild animal link to virus outbreak should change health strategy The Chinese have a saying that Cantonese people eat anything that has four legs other than a table. This stereotype has now attached itself to all Chinese in the eyes of the world. The Sars outbreak saw a decline in consumption of exotic animals by Chinese diners. The China Wildlife Conservation Association, in collaboration with WildAid, released a survey in 2006 that found 72 per cent of 24,000 people surveyed in 16 mainland cities had not eaten wild animals in the previous year, up from 51 per cent in a similar survey conducted in 1999. Nevertheless, around 30 per cent of those surveyed were still eating wildlife. An explanation for a people’s propensity to eat wildlife is their deprivation in the past. Political economist Hu Xingdou said Chinese people still view starvation as “an unforgettable part of the national memory”. He added: “While feeding themselves is not a problem to many Chinese nowadays, eating novel food or meat, organs or parts from rare animals or plants has become a measure of identity to some people.” I also believe that with increasing affluence, eating exotic animals, preferably freshly slaughtered, has also become a status symbol. Online discussions offer explanations ranging from flaunting wealth to belief in nutritional benefits and enhancing male sexual prowess. A widely circulated game menu from a shop in the Wuhan Huanan Seafood Market lists more than 100 items: live peacock (500 yuan/head), dead peacock (350 yuan/head), civet cat (130yuan/head), live sika deer (6,000 yuan/head), live scorpion (500 yuan/head), live wolf cub (20 yuan/head), crocodile tongue (35 yuan/each), camel hump (20 yuan/each), and deer penis (400 yuan each). The information sheet also boasts services from live slaughtering to nationwide delivery. Although research has not conclusively identified the original animal source of the new coronavirus, the Science China Life Sciences journal published a study on January 21 discussing the similarity in genome sequences between the new coronavirus and the Sars coronavirus, linking it to bats. Another recent study published by the Journal of Medical Virology suggests that snakes could be intermediate hosts. China has amended its Wildlife Protection Law as recently as in 2018. However, the legislative focus is on the protection of precious, endangered, beneficial wildlife and those of economic and scientific research import. The law permits the captive breeding of wildlife for commercial purposes, provided that companies obtain a licence from provincial authorities. These licences have become talismans for covering up the illegal sales and consumption of wild animals. To plug the loopholes in the law, China should make permanent the temporary ban on the trafficking of wildlife. How the coronavirus is exposing the ills of the China model Additional legislation should address situations where the species are not endangered, with corresponding amendments to the relevant provisions in the criminal code. Under Article 341 of the Criminal Law, the illegal killing and transport of protected animals are subject to prison terms of up to more than 10 years, depending on the severity of the offences. These penalties should be made more severe, and the fines should include disgorgement of profits and punitive damages. Regardless of the market demand for the consumption of exotic animals, there is no redeeming value to their potential costs to health and the economy. One study of the economic costs of Sars estimated it to be US$40 billion. The economic toll of the Wuhan virus could be higher. China boasts the largest wildlife market in the world. To pre-empt the potential fallout from a clampdown, that drives other countries to fill the supply, China should lead a global call to outlaw the trade and consumption of wildlife through an international treaty, not only for the protection of endangered species, but also for the health of mankind. Chiu-Ti Jansen, with advanced degrees from Yale and Columbia, is the founder of multimedia platform China Happenings and a former corporate partner of international law firm Sidley Austin Purchase the China AI Report 2020 brought to you by SCMP Research and enjoy a 20% discount (original price US$400). This 60-page all new intelligence report gives you first-hand insights and analysis into the latest industry developments and intelligence about China AI. Get exclusive access to our webinars for continuous learning, and interact with China AI executives in live Q&A. Offer valid until 31 March 2020.