On the outskirts of Bolao town, five minutes down an overgrown dirt track into the jungle of southern China’s Guangxi region, Hua Chaojiang breeds cobras by the hundred. An acrid smell and a chorus of angry hisses meet us when we step into the darkness of the three-storey red-brick building. Hua, who has been raising snakes for 20 years, is unfazed. He reaches into one of the pens, grabs a tail and casually lifts up a complaining — and venomous — elapid snake. The four-year-old cobra is about as thick as Hua’s muscled arm and nearly twice as long. Hua laughs when asked whether the poisonous snakes have ever bitten him. “Of course,” he replies, using a metal pole with a hook to keep its fangs away from his body.
Despite their impressive size, Hua’s cobras are starving. Some are already dead. It is six months since the Chinese government banned the breeding and consumption of snakes and other land-based wildlife, as part of its response to the discovery of a novel coronavirus in the central city of Wuhan. Now that Covid-19 has turned from an epidemic to a pandemic, China’s prohibition looks like it could become permanent, leaving Hua with thousands of snakes and nowhere to put them. “If there is no market, what can I do with them?” he asks. To save money, Hua has cut down feeding from five times to once a week. Even so, his walk-in freezer is nearly empty of frozen cockerels. The hunger makes the cobras restless. “Snakes fight snakes. Snakes eat snakes,” he says.
The snake trade has been lucrative for Hua. Before the ban, a snake would sell for about Rmb50 (more than $7) per kilogramme in markets in neighbouring Guangdong province. He has been growing his business steadily since the 1990s, when he first started keeping cobras in a small shed with half a dozen snake pens. Later he invested profits in a new building to keep the poisonous reptiles further from neighbours. He attended courses with snake-breeding experts and passed tests to become a qualified breeder. As he expanded he moved most of his stock into the jungle, although he still keeps a few pits of oriental rat snakes, which are not venomous, on his original farm.
In 2016, the industry of breeders and restaurants that used wild animals for meat was estimated to have a total value of Rmb125bn ($18bn). The government has promised to compensate breeders, but the process keeps being delayed. Hua, 50, has had to borrow money to keep the business from total collapse. “Since the epidemic came, it’s not been possible to sell anything. I’m losing money on buying the chicks to feed them, on paying workers, on everything.” He and other breeders travelled to the regional capital of Nanning to petition the government — to no avail. Officials talk of finding new employment for breeders but Hua struggles to imagine what that could be. “I only know how to breed snakes,” he says.
Hua has been caught on the wrong side of global efforts to guard against a future outbreak of another contagious pathogen. Epidemiologists warn the next one could easily be more deadly than Covid-19, which has infected more than 16 million people worldwide and resulted in more than 600,000 deaths. The prevailing theory is that it originated in wildlife. The earliest cases of novel coronavirus identified in Wuhan were tied to the city’s Huanan market, which, according to independent Chinese media reports, sold a wide range of creatures, including civets, pangolins and snakes.
The exact transmission pathway remains unclear; the best genetic matches for Sars-Cov-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, have been of coronaviruses carried by horseshoe bats from the southwestern Yunnan province. But some scientists believe the virus passed through an intermediate host before reaching humans. The pangolin, a scaly anteater once common in Asia but now endangered by high levels of poaching and trafficking, is one possible host; another early suggestion, later shown to be unlikely, was snakes.
As the country where the pandemic began, China has faced intense pressure to clean up its wildlife trade and urban live animal markets to safeguard against future outbreaks. Haunted by multiple past outbreaks — notably, severe acute respiratory syndrome, or Sars, in 2003, which was traced back to palm civets — the government has responded sharply, with the emphasis on shutting down the illegal wild animal trade. The prohibition has been hailed by environmentalists and epidemiologists alike, but many have called for it to be expanded and made permanent.
The glare of international scrutiny has further complicated the government’s efforts. The original discovery of the coronavirus in the Wuhan market sparked calls in the US and Europe for China to close its “wet markets”. These calls were mostly met with confusion in China, where urban markets made up of outdoor stalls or housed in large warehouses are preferred to supermarkets by the majority of the population as the place to buy groceries.
The phrase “wet market” added to the sense that the calls were misguided. The term originated in Hong Kong English to describe outdoor vegetable, fruit, meat and seafood stalls, which had slippery floors from a mixture of discarded food waste and water used to clean produce, and has no obvious equivalent in Mandarin Chinese. But this linguistic confusion is a distraction from the more significant roadblocks China faces as it attempts to control the wildlife trade to ensure future biosecurity. Even for a one-party state led by Xi Jinping, the country’s most powerful leader in decades, this is a daunting task.
The snake trade was just one of dozens of wildlife industries that boomed as China’s population grew and became wealthier. Rarer species were the domain of China’s nouveau riche. Carved ivory and tiger bone wine were often prized possessions and could be auctioned for vast sums or given as bribes to corrupt officials. These practices have been curtailed in recent years, thanks in part to President Xi’s anti-graft campaign, which curbed flagrant bribery. But more prosaic forms of the trade have persisted and even grown.
The country’s rising wealth has created a host of markets for wildlife, some legal, some illegal and many somewhere in between. Prior to the pandemic, the farming and commercial trade of about 50 protected species was permitted in China. Many more non-protected species, such as snakes, could be bred and sold as long as the farms and businesses obtained licences from the forestry authorities.
Hua’s cobras, which had received official approval, are mostly sold for food. Other species are traded as exotic pets for the urban middle class or used in Chinese medicines, many of which are mass-produced and highly popular. At the height of the coronavirus outbreak in China, more than 90 per cent of confirmed Covid-19 cases in the central Hubei province were treated with traditional Chinese medicines, according to local officials. Many of these remedies are plant- and mineral-based, but some also use wild animal parts. An injection that contains bear bile was given to more than 30,000 patients in 90 hospitals across China.
The growing demand for wildlife has brought animal diseases up close with human populations. Rapid urbanisation has enclosed the trade of both wild and traditionally farmed animals amid densely populated areas. Ever greater contact between humans and animals is increasing the chances of transmission and thus the risk of an emergent pathogen. The UN Environment Programme says about 60 per cent of outbreaks since 1940 have been zoonotic, which means they originate in animals, then mutate to become transmissible to humans. The majority of those zoonotic diseases have been from wild animals. EcoHealth Alliance, a non-profit that researches emerging infectious diseases, believes there could be as many as 800,000 unknown pathogens in animal species with the ability to infect humans. Markets such as those in Wuhan, where multiple different live wild animals are brought into close contact — and kept in cramped, unhygienic conditions — significantly increase the risk of infection spillovers, either into amplifier host species or directly into humans.
Breeders such as Hua represent the other side of the equation for the ruling Chinese Communist party, which faces a delicate balancing act. Standing in the way of the strictest bans possible are individual farmers’ livelihoods and powerful pharmaceutical companies that breed wildlife for use in traditional Chinese medicine. Legal loopholes and mixed messages from the body that oversees and therefore plays a central role in facilitating the wildlife trade, the National Forestry and Grassland Administration, also threaten progress, activists say.
In Guangxi, which produces about 70 per cent of China’s snakes, some 37,000 people relied on the snake trade as a source of income. Bolao is in Lingshan county, known as the “home of China’s snake breeders”. The region has won plaudits from Chinese state media for using the wildlife trade to spur economic growth and the alleviation of poverty. Local entrepreneurs have banded together to share best practices, create modern farms and scale up the industry.
After so many years of encouragement, they are struggling to understand why they suddenly are not allowed to farm snakes. “Lots of experts have come to Lingshan to see the industry. The higher-ups don’t understand this, so they stopped it,” says Deng Cunyou, an enthusiastic breeder in smart shoes and a white shift who helps run a local co-operative. “Instead, they should have standardised the industry, made it scientific. People shouldn’t just be able to breed as many as they want.”
The Rongji restaurant chain, based in the southern city of Guangzhou, is arguably the world’s most successful snake-meat business. With 50 locations, it had revenue of Rmb450m last year. Its more popular dishes include snake braised in ginger sauce and a “dragon and phoenix” soup made from chicken and snake broth. Shelves in the office of its founder and owner, Wang Guohui, are stacked with culinary awards and empty bottles of expensive whisky and Moutai, the Chinese grain-based spirit. On the wall is a copy of a comic painted by a famous local artist that shows Wang with a bright green serpent draped over his neck.
Wang is only slightly less enthusiastic than his caricature and does not hold back in defending his business. “This current one-fell-swoop approach is forcing just about all my business into closure,” he says. Not many people knew how to prepare snakes properly when he launched the business 16 years ago, which had given him a competitive edge, Wang says. His specialism is now a liability. “If I was still deluded into thinking I could continue, I would have been bankrupt long ago.” Knowing he had to find a new business, he has sold some branches and laid off staff. “If that’s the way the policy is going, we can only go along with it.”
The impact on his business aside, Wang also argues that banning snakes outright and permanently will ripple through the supply chain, since snake breeders buy up unwanted male chicks from chicken farms that only need hens to lay eggs. He admits eating snake isn’t for everyone, but says many people still want the option, particularly on special occasions. “It’s not like chicken, duck or fish, which you can have three times a day. It’s more like you have it once a month or in the winter you take a portion to your parents.” One of the main reasons people eat snake is a belief that the meat has medicinal properties to “dispel wind and remove dampness” — especially useful in the clammy southern Chinese heat, he says.
Even with the ban, the wildlife business in Guangzhou has not disappeared. Traders in the city’s largest Chinese medicine market are selling Heilongjiang snow frogs, which have yet to be whitelisted by the government, alongside the usual legal fare such as antelope penis and antler. Some traders say they could obtain other wildlife products if needed. “Wild [animals] are definitely better than people-made options — everyone in Chinese medicine says so. Wild are also more expensive than bred, because they are harder to find and are more effective,” says one stall owner.
Wildlife breeding is not the sole risk factor in preventing epidemics; sales practices are also a concern. Although it is far from common, some Chinese cities host urban markets that sell various live wild animals. The sale of live domesticated farm animals in markets is also problematic. While both Sars and Covid-19 most likely originated in wildlife, the traditional farming, transportation and sale of these animals also pose significant dangers for the spread of zoonotic diseases. The country has faced an epidemic of African swine fever in pig farms and, since 1997, Guangdong’s live poultry markets have battled with frequent seasonal outbreaks of avian influenza virus.
In June, China’s markets were thrown back into the spotlight for a second time, when a new cluster of cases in Beijing was linked to the largest wholesale market in the city. After a citywide testing drive, the municipal government found more than 300 cases linked to Xinfadi, a large warehouse in south-west Beijing where farmers sold meat, fish, vegetables and other goods. The exact source of the resurgence remains unclear, but Chinese officials have suggested it may have been imported from Europe on frozen produce, an explanation that some epidemiologists have labelled unlikely. In response to the outbreak, Beijing closed the marketplace and its sellers were redirected to a facility in neighbouring Hebei province.
Guangzhou’s markets have also come under even greater scrutiny in response to the pandemic. In the Jiangcun live poultry market, stall owners complain that new measures to prevent infections have hampered trade. “Business is much worse — about half what it was last year,” says Zhou Guoxiong, a breeder who has been in the business for more than 25 years. “In January [in a nearby market], some people were arrested for selling wild animals after an undercover newspaper report and we weren’t allowed to open here until March.” After reopening, sellers were no longer allowed to let customers take away live chickens and had to slaughter them on site, which defeats the market’s main selling point, Zhou says. “Who in Guangzhou eats frozen chicken?”
An expanding middle class has also created a market for household pets. But the prevailing nervousness led to Guangzhou’s major pet market, Huadiwan, which has areas dedicated to selling fish, birds, cats and dogs, being partially dismantled this year, with many shopkeepers asked to move out. The stores that used to sell more exotic species can be spotted easily by the missing characters that have been cut out of their signs.
Liu Yiding, the owner of Tangchao, a well-known reptile pet shop that used to be based in Huadiwan, has already moved to a new location. On a quiet morning, the shop is being cleaned as workers feed crickets to the lizards and toads. “We have been to the forestry bureau to seek advice and we want to apply for a formal business licence, but there is no appropriate permit for us to apply for, so we are in a grey zone,” says Liu.
The regulators have been caught up in the constant policy updates almost as much as sellers and breeders. The rapid pace of change has made it hard for even the forestry administration to give straight answers at times. One forestry official in Guangdong says that the bureau receives a vast number of requests about what can be bred or sold. “It’s not like you can search on Baidu and find the latest information. There are some [species] that could be bred before but it’s not clear now whether they will be allowed,” he says. Work to inform the public hasn’t been great, he admits, especially explaining the science behind decisions. “Overall, the interests of farmers and small businesses haven’t been very well respected.”
Few in China have been more active in pushing the National Forestry and Grassland Administration to crack down on the illegal wildlife trade than Zhou Jinfeng, head of the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation. “Covid is a disaster but it’s a good lesson, a wake-up call,” he says. The foundation was created in 1985 with a mission to reintroduce the endangered Père David’s deer. Originally from northern China, the species had been hunted to extinction in China but had been successfully bred in captivity in the UK. The foundation’s role has since expanded to a wide range of lobbying and awareness-raising activities for endangered species in China.
For Zhou, the pandemic has accelerated a shift that was already happening, though far too slowly. “The ordinary people are now on my side,” he says. “I disagree when people say it’s ‘tradition’. Lots of people have told me they used to eat [wildlife], love to eat it. But now they won’t eat it.” On almost a daily basis, the foundation posts about violations of wildlife trade bans, as a network of volunteers across the country inform it of illegal exotic bird markets or poachers.
The reclassification of the pangolin as a first-class protected species last month, and its removal from the Chinese Pharmacopoeia of ingredients for medicine, is a key victory for Zhou. Protecting the endangered creature has been a priority for the foundation and Zhou keeps a stuffed toy pangolin on his desk. He says there used to be between 10,000 and 20,000 wild pangolins in Hunan province alone, but in recent years conservation groups have found only 20 in China.
The group has also begun using the courts to protect wildlife and Zhou hopes Covid will make that easier. Among the biggest shifts since the outbreak began is a beefing-up of the laws governing wildlife trade, as well as stricter punishments for those who break them. The main problems holding back progress towards stricter bans are “business and money”, Zhou says. “Those are the forces that are doing all they can to attack us, to push back.” He points out that the ancient texts that much of traditional Chinese medicine is based on talk about pangolin scales as being “toxic” and an “inferior medicine” that should be used sparingly, if at all. “It was after reform and opening [in the 1980s] that people started to market the idea [of pangolin being medicinal] to make money.”
Grace Ge Gabriel, Asia regional director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, believes Beijing could make the shift from wildlife trading happen if it decided to, by including compensation for farmers and incentives to switch industries. “The whole disaster is caused by the legal loopholes,” she says. “The basis of China’s wildlife protection law was wrong. It’s a wildlife protection law in name only. The law is more about protecting the utilisation of wild animals, rather than protecting them for their ecological value in the wild.”
Ge Gabriel points to the use of bear bile in Tan Re Qing, a Chinese medicine injection for respiratory infections made popular during the Sars outbreak in 2003, which was included in a list of products recommended by China’s health commission as a treatment for coronavirus. In the 1990s, experts in traditional Chinese medicine had begun to reject the use of bear bile completely, because wild bear populations were so low and they considered bears bred in captivity to be unsanitary. “Instead of the government taking the cue to find replacements and phase out bear farming, they continued [to allow] bear farming. What happened was they merged some of the smaller unsanitary bear farms with pharmaceutical companies to create something more sanitary-looking,” she says.
A spokesperson for Shanghai Kaibao Pharmaceutical Co, the leading manufacturer of Tan Re Qing, says its technology to synthesise bear bile is not yet mature enough to make the treatment at scale. The company defends the use of farmed bears, saying they do not count as “wild animals” because they are supplied by breeding units recognised by the Chinese government.
Andrew Di Salvo, a US-based wildlife veterinarian and author of a recent study on the risks of bears as a source of zoonotic pathogens, says “possible transmission of bacteria via bear bile consumption would be at the top of my list of concerns” about infections, although he adds that the overall risk may be low. “While there are numerous zoonotic diseases involving other species that may pose a greater risk to humans, that by no means reduces the importance of remaining vigilant of all potential zoonotic risks,” he says.
Conservationists hope the pandemic will convince China’s government that promoting medicines with wild animal ingredients is more likely to cause the next outbreak than help cure this one. “The current ban is focused only on consumption, but the virus doesn’t make a distinction between trade that is legal or illegal, for food or for medicine or for exotic pets,” Ge Gabriel points out.
She believes the shift towards protection can happen, as it has in the past. After China banned auctions of ivory, rhino horn and tiger bone, it led to a marked reduction in poaching, which has continued to fall. “Enforcement went up, penalties were up, trade went down,” she says. “Current loopholes basically put the burden of proof on law enforcement, rather than on the criminals. That needs to change.”
Christian Shepherd is the FT’s Beijing correspondent. Qianer Liu is the FT’s assistant South China reporter. Additional reporting by Emma Zhou in Beijing
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