An alligator gar. (Photo by Yuan Wei/For China Daily)
China is racing to curb the costly spread of exotic species and raise public awareness of the issue with high-profile lawsuits, painstaking cleanup campaigns and nationwide surveys.
In a landmark ruling in February, a court in Jiangsu province ordered two men to collectively pay 58,000 yuan ($8,300) in fines for releasing into the wild 12.5 metric tons of African catfish, a species originating from the Nile River.
It was the country's first civil lawsuit brought by prosecutors against people engaged in enabling exotic species invasion.
The defendants had described the episode as an ignorant but kind act aimed at earning blessings from supernatural forces.
Deputy prosecutor-general Liang Yun of the Nanjing People's Procuratorate noted that China has a tradition of releasing animals into the wild that dates back to the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC).
However, many release activities are carried out without proper knowledge of the species in question, or awareness of environmental protection, which has "led to serious damage to the original ecosystem and invasive alien species", he said.
Filing a public interest lawsuit against illegal release activities can effectively educate and warn others, guiding people to release animals in a science-based and law-abiding manner, Liang said.
Before that, penalties were mostly administrative in nature.
For example, a man in Baise, Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, last year was fined 28,000 yuan by local agricultural authorities for releasing 10 suckermouth catfish into a local reservoir.
He was also ordered to retrieve the creatures within a week.
The court decision has shined a spotlight on a spiraling crisis of exotic species invasion, which is costing the nation 200 billion yuan each year in direct and indirect losses, according to a 2020 report by the Ministry of Ecology and Environment.
The exact number of such species having made inroads into the country remains unknown.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs and a number of other agencies in 2021 decided to launch a nationwide investigation, and the results are expected to be published in a few months.
However, the 2020 China Ecological Environment Status Bulletin compiled by the Ministry of Ecology and Environment said over 660 invasive alien species have already been found in China.
The number is projected to rise further due to increased global commodity trade and human migration, it said.
A total of 59 exotic animals have been cataloged for controlling some of the most damaging species.
On the list is red imported fire ants, whose sting can be extremely painful and can cause severe allergic reactions in some people, or even lead to anaphylactic shock.
The insect has been spotted in 12 provincial-level regions, and was reported to cause damage to local crops, forests and infrastructure such as road lamps.
A series of high-profile cleanup efforts targeting non-native species have also helped educate the public about the seriousness of the issue.
Last year, authorities in Ruzhou, Henan province, launched a monthlong effort to drain 300,000 tons of lake water in a local park, in search of a pair of alligator gar, a freshwater fish inhabiting North and Central America and that has become an unconventional pet sold on Chinese e-marketplaces in recent years.
Experts said the fish's introduction to China's wilderness could potentially harm native fish populations and disrupt the balance of the aquatic ecosystem.
The fish hunt was livestreamed online and received more than 37 million views.
Some netizens accused the effort of being a waste of time and money, a telltale sign of inadequate public awareness of the damage caused by non-native species.