Even China’s badger farmers can’t escape impact of US trade war

  • China is a major exporter of animal’s bristles but forces at home and abroad are taking their toll
PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 December, 2018, 6:02am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 December, 2018, 9:24am

Dai Changlin and Jing Haibing have made their name in a niche business.

The two farmers from northern China breed and farm badgers for the luxury consumer goods market, which uses the animals’ bristles and hair to make brushes.

They run separate operations but are both leaders in their field and have been held up as examples for other farmers, featuring two years ago in Chinese state television programmes showing how agricultural businesses can innovate their way to a bigger income.

Jing, from Qinglong county in Hebei province, claims the title of China’s largest badger farmer and produces more than 6,000 of the animals a year.

Meanwhile, Dai, the first to breed badgers, now owns three farms in Heilongjiang’s Raohe county, producing several thousand badgers a year.

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They both say business is growing – despite a campaign by an international animal welfare group.

But now there is a new issue: badger hair – of which China is a major exporter – has appeared on the list of goods that US trade warriors have hit with import tariffs, which remain in place despite the agreement at the G20 not to escalate the dispute for now.

The niche product is only one profitable part of the animal. Besides car seat cushions or make-up and shaving brushes, badgers have been butchered for their fat, which is extracted for medicine and cosmetics, and meat – which is regarded as a delicacy in some quarters.

Jing said hair accounted for 30 per cent of his business, while the rest of the animal went into medicine and skin care products.

But Jing said he was not concerned about the impact of the tariffs.

“Our business in badger hair is not affected [by tariffs], because we sell it to a trading company, which deals with not only American clients, but also those from Europe,” Jing said.

Dai said medicine and cosmetics were also major products for his business.

“The fur is a cheap by-product, and we sell it all to vendors in Hebei, where it’s made into car cushions or shaving brushes,” Dai said.

In total, a badger could bring more than 1,000 yuan (US$144) in net profit, including the hide, which was sold at more than 100 yuan per piece, he said.

While business remains lucrative for Dai and Jing, manufacturers in Anping county, Hebei, a traditional trading hub for animal bristles, are feeling the chill.

In September, animal welfare organisation Peta released a video which purported to show how some Chinese farmers killed badgers in the wild or on farms using snares and other cruel methods, calling on brushmakers and consumers to replace brushes made of badger with synthetic ones.

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About 40 companies responded by banning badger hair brushes after seeing the footage, Peta said.

Chen Baowen, who owns a factory producing horse hair, badger hair and synthetic bristles, said international orders for badger hair brushes had fallen by a third this year.

Anping, which used to be known as “town of animal hair”, has become the “town of mesh” as producers shift to synthetics.

“Only a small group of high-end people who hold traditional ideas are still using badger hair,” Chen said. “It is increasingly replaced by nylon bristles, and many badger hair producers have gone out of business or diversified. Profits are narrowing quickly.”

It was shrinking before the trade war, as fewer people were willing to engage in an sector that Chen called “handicraft”.

Stripping hair from the animal and the making of badger brushes were done entirely by hand, he said.

Another problem is poaching and the difficulty of breeding badgers, according to Jin Yuwen, a researcher from Heilongjiang Wildlife Research Institute.

Jin said regulations on illegal hunting had been tightened in recent years but the trade had led to a fall in the number of wild badgers in China.

The omnivore, which lives widely in Europe, Asia, and parts of Africa, could still be found in some “well reserved” forests, such as the Daxinganling, in China today, he said.

“Because their use is quite limited, it remains a small sector and the number of badgers bred is small,” he said, estimating the true number of breeders in China to be fewer than 10.

In Jing’s view, most of the badger farms in China are small scale, raising a few hundred or just dozens.

“They do not breed badgers, but catch them from the wild,” he said.

Dai said breeding them was not easy, so few tried it.

“The breeding cycle is very long. Normally, it takes three years for a newborn badger to grow up and give birth to cubs,” he said.