"It's More Profitable Than Growing Crops" - Coronavirus Outbreak Threatens To Put China's Wildlife Traffickers Out Of Business

The jury is still out as to what caused the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. Chinese authorities initially suspected a wet market in Wuhan where wild animals like bats and snakes were sold illegally. A nearby biolab has also attracted scrutiny, and increased suspicion as Chinese authorities have been stubbornly unwilling to cooperate with skeptics requests.

But regardless of how the outbreak started, it has already raised questions about traditional Chinese practices of consuming wild animals, either for medicinal purposes - for example, it's believed that eating civet cats, vermin akin to raccoons, can bequeath more sexual vigor - or as delicacies (remember "bat soup"?).

On Sunday, the FT exposed how the scrutiny is putting pressure on farmers in the countryside as a wider economic slump reverberates through China's economy.

Wang Zhilin used to eke out a living from rice farming in the central province of Jiangxi. Then she switched to a more lucrative trade - feeding China’s voracious appetite for exotic animals, the consumption of which many believe is at the root of the coronavirus outbreak.

"Raising wild animals is more profitable than growing crops," said Ms Wang. She farms civet cats, a raccoon-like animal, and made a profit of Rmb50,000 ($7,140) last year by selling 33 full-grown animals - more than twice what she would have made from growing rice.

Parts of China have a tradition of consuming exotic wild animals as food or medicine, despite the implication of some species such as civet cats in the Sars epidemic 17 years ago. Now the animal trade’s suspected role in the deadly coronavirus outbreak has put the practice in the sights of China’s senior leadership. The executive body of the country’s parliament, is expected to review measures to curb the business on Monday.

"We must resolutely close and crack down on illegal wild animal market and trade," President Xi Jinping said this month. "The bad habit of eating wildlife without limits must be abandoned."

One of the ancillary consequences of China's middle class income boom was a massive increase in demand for wild animals consumed in traditional medicine, and as traditional delicacies - dishes like the much hyped 'bat soup'.

To be clear: The wildlife trade was illegal before the outbreak. If scientists do confirm that the outbreak truly did originate from the wet market in Wuhan, that would be like if Americans consuming fentanyl also got infected with a pneumonia-causing virus, inadvertently starting the outbreak.

Of course, now Beijing is promoting a narrative that the virus might have originated in the US, and that the wet market in Wuhan was part of some kind of elaborate set up, as the Global Times explained earlier.

But as Beijing discouraged the trade in wildlife with one hand, banning hunting in some cases, it also encouraged the industry's growth in select parts of the countryside, where the industry represented an important and lucrative component of the local economic base - yet another example of Beijing putting economic growth before the welfare of is own civilians.

These farms generated 56 billion Rmb in economic output in 2017, a fivefold jump from 9.6 billion 10 years earlier, according to the China Forestry Yearbook.

And as with any deregulated grey market, the criminals who run the space are more than willing to push the envelope, which they did in this case. Farms exploited the lack of scrutiny by capturing more animals in the wild instead of farming them.

"There is no way for wildlife farming to grow so fast in an organic manner," said a Beijing-based scholar and policy adviser who declined to be named.

Technically, China only allows the trading and breeding of 54 wild animals, including, bizarrely, kangaroos and bamboo rats. But FT sources claim the list has been de facto expanded by local authorities in many areas.

But the economic incentive clearly bred corruption, as the FT explains.

Zhou Jinfeng, secretary-general of the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation, a non-profit organisation, said several hundred wild species - including many rare ones - were up for sale. "There is a general lack of regulation on wildlife farming and trade," said Mr Zhou.

The policy inertia could stem from potential conflicts of interest. Public records show dozens of retired forestry officials responsible for issuing wild animal farming licences also chair local wildlife conservation associations funded in part by farms.

"How do you expect the forestry authority to strictly enforce animal protection rules when it is financed by the business it regulates?" said Mr Zhou.

While it remains unclear which animal is to blame for the coronavirus outbreak, scientists believe the lack of oversight of China’s wildlife industry has helped trigger the epidemic.

Experts warned that the unregulated wet markets are ideal breeding grounds for viruses and disease. As far as what should be done, there is some disagreement. Some researchers believe a more closely regulated system could allow for increased safety in the wild animal trade, while others prefer an outright ban that is heavy and widely enforced - a system which they also claimed might not be economically viable.

"Live wild animal markets, such as the huge wet markets in China...are ideal places for zoonotic virus emergence to occur," said Andrew Cunningham, deputy director of science at the Zoological Society of London, referring to conditions that originate in non-human animals.

However, Chen Changfu, a professor at Central China Agricultural University, said wildlife farming would do no harm so long as there were greater controls over farming conditions.

"A carp fish in a well-kept pond is safer than its peer in a polluted river," said Mr Chen. "The same is true with wild animals."

Other academics prefer a ban on wildlife farming altogether, arguing that China lacks the capacity to conduct disease inspection. "The inspection system must cover everything from hunting to farming to transportation to slaughtering," said one Beijing-based policy adviser. "It is not economically viable."

Of course, if and when the truth comes out, if the Hunan water market in Wuhan is exonerated, these farmers will be singing a different tune, we suspect.