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Endangered wildlife trade persists, despite crackdown

2014-07-09 09:17 Global Times Web Editor: Li Yan

Porcupines in cages; endangered tortoises in buckets; snakes in cloth bags. Rare wildlife is still on sale illegally at some Chinese markets, despite courts being ordered to jail those who eat or trade in endangered species.

More than 100 wild animals' bodies, including an unspecified number of endangered species, were found in a rented house in Kaiyang, Guizhou province, according to local newspaper Guiyang Evening News on June 27. Most of the corpses were covered in wounds and awaiting sale to restaurants, according to local police.

"I can sell the meat for 500 yuan ($80) per half kilo," a pangolin vendor at the Xingfu wholesale market in Conghua Guangdong Province, told AFP recently. "If you want a living one it will be more than 1,000 yuan."

The market attracted media attention in 2012 after Chinese media exposed the open sale of rare animals in the market.

In May, China's top legislature passed a judicial interpretation clarifying that the eating endangered wild animals, or buying them for this or any other purpose, is illegal. It also ruled that violation of the bill can lead to up to 10 years in prison.

The judicial interpretation aimed at boosting the enforcement of cracking down on the trafficking of rare wild animals, as there has been a legislative gray zone around punishing the eaters.

However, despite the judicial interpretation, doubts remain over the enforcement. Some legal experts have also argued that the law should ban the eating of all wild animals, not only the endangered species, to better protect China's dwindling wildlife populations.

The pangolin seller in Conghua, who declined to be named, said making a living from his trade was getting tougher. "Now it's governed very strictly," he admitted.

But on one recent morning, traders were out in force, with hundreds of snakes writhing in white cloth bags and wild boars staring plaintively from wire cages.

A step forward

Before the judicial interpretation was issued, the Criminal Law banned illegal hunting of any wild animals but failed to clarify whether buying the prey of illegal hunters violated the law. And many buyers walked away unpunished.

However, law and animal protection experts pointed out that the buyers are a major driver for of large-scale illegal hunting and trade.

Beijing first enacted laws forbidding trade in scores of creatures, including the Chinese pangolin, in 1989. But despite repeated crackdowns, illegal trading and hunting seemed hard to stop, said Lang Sheng, deputy head of the Legislative Affairs Commission of the National People's Congress(NPC) Standing Committee, elaborating on the bill to lawmakers.

According to the new judicial interpretation, anyone who eats any animals in the endangered list, or buys them for other purposes, will be considered to be breaking the Criminal Law and will face a jail term from five years to 10 years, depending on the severity of the offense.

Currently, 420 species of wild animals are considered rare or endangered by the Chinese government. They include giant pandas, golden monkeys, Asian black bears and pangolins.

Police have also strengthened their enforcement. Border police in Guangdong province in May were shown seizing 956 frozen pangolins, reportedly weighing four tons. The province also launched a special crackdown on trafficking wild animals from July to December 2014, the Xinhua News Agency reported.

Jill Robertson, CEO of Hong Kong-based charity Animals Asia, described the enhanced penalties as a "positive step" but added that "enforcement must be strengthened, and public education and awareness greatly enhanced.

"The illegal wildlife trade in general has become a multi-billion dollar business in China," she said.

Questions remain

Although the law attempts to close the loophole, some experts still worry about the enforcement of it. Fan Zhiyong, director of World Wide Fund For Nature Beijing Office Species Protection Program, said that the current crackdown's lack of any long-term mechanism make some offenders easy to simply hide away from the campaign for a while then resurface, Hong Kong-based Wen WeiPo reported. Fan said that it is not rare to see restaurants in China's big cities selling rare birds and the situation is much more severe in rural areas.

Tian Yangyang, a researcher for Chinese advocacy group Nature University, pointed out that Guangdong eateries do not generally advertise endangered species but instead offer them to trusted customers on secret menus.

"I am not optimistic the rules will be enforced, because the legal system in China is still not very robust," he said. Tian added that the trade in protected animals "is getting worse, because it has been driven underground."

Experts also pointed out that the trade of some animals not as rare as those listed animals should also been banned, as they were more widely traded and the list of endangered animal has not been significantly changed since it was set up more than two decades ago.

Because of these reasons, Fan said the penalty might lack the power of deterrence. The interpretation only apply to those buyers and sellers who know they are consuming endangered species before eating or trading them, Li Shouwei, vice-director of the Criminal Law office of the Legislative Affairs Commission of the NPC Standing Committee, said. Li added that if endangered species are raised by people, it is legal to consume them.

Two months since the interpretation was issued, few cases of eaters being punished have been reported, other than a sensational case on Guangdong involving the arrest of several businessmen later convicted of trading, killing and eating wild tigers.

For other species, the trade is unabated. "I didn't know they were endangered," said a young customer named Wang, before tucking in enthusiastically.

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