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Tale of China’s illegal trade

Published: 27th Apr, 2020

China recently started a process to classify a step to rein in animals and birds from illegal trading in wildlife.  However, experts are raising concerns over China's measures to prevent illegal wildlife trade.


China recently started a process to classify a step to rein in animals and birds from illegal trading in wildlife.  However, experts are raising concerns over China's measures to prevent illegal wildlife trade.


  • China, the most populous country in the world has drawn criticism from several quarters over its handling of wet animal markets after the outbreak of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
  • The epicentre of COVID-19 was in the Chinese city of Wuhan, an important hub in the lucrative trade in wildlife – both legal and illegal.
  • The outbreak is believed to have originated in a marketin which a variety of animal-derived products and meats are widely available, including peacocks, porcupines, bats and rats.
  • It’s also a market where regulatory and welfare standards are rudimentary at best.
  • The China’s government recently (April 8) circulated a list of animals that could be traded legally, seeking comments from the public. The public can send in their comments to the ministry until May 8.
  • The list — titled ‘National Catalogue of Livestock and Poultry Genetic Resources’ — was created based on the decisions taken during a meeting of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress.
  • It was drafted for “eliminating the bad habit of excessive eating of wildlife and effectively safeguarding the lives and health of the public”.


What is illegal wildlife trade?

  • Trade becomes illegal when it contravenes environmental regulations such as government legislation and international agreements put in place to prevent over-exploitation.
  • Though it is to be noted that even legal trade can be ecologically unsustainable, and regulations are regularly changed to protect wildlife endangered by a sudden spike in demand.
  • Today’s interconnected world was built on international trade, but not all of it is legal.
  • Every year, up to $23 billion worth of elephant tusks, rhino horns, tiger bones, bear bile and other wildlife by-products illicitly change hands, according to UN estimates.
  • Poachers, traffickers and highly-organized criminal gangs decimate already endangered wildlife species, reaping a deadly harvest in the pursuit of profits.

India’s story:

  • India is only 2.4 per cent of world's land area, but contributes about 8 per cent of known global wildlife, including over 45,000 species of plants and 91,000 species of animals.
  • The illegal trade in wildlife is driving species all over the globe to the brink of extinction. In India, the trade is expanding rapidly, driven by demand for rare species—headed for the pet market—as well as for species believed to have medicinal properties.

The main consumer markets are China and South East Asia, but wildlife—alive or as body parts—is also smuggled to the Gulf, Europe and Northern America. Beyond India, the main transit countries are Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar.

Legal and policy framework to regulate and restrict the wildlife trade:

  • Current laws prohibit trade in over 1,800 species of wild animals, plants, and their derivatives under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.
  • The Indian Penal Code (IPC) and The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1960 empower authorities to penalize and jail those who harm wildlife.

Illegal wildlife trade’s role in deadly diseases:

  • Domesticated animals like cattle, sheep, dogs and goats shared the highest number of viruses with humans, with eight times more animal-borne viruses than wild mammal species.
  • COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, likely jumped from bats to endangered pangolins and then to humans at a wildlife market for bushmeat in Wuhan, China.
  • Three-quarters of new human diseases, such as SARS, Ebola and HIV, come from animals. 
    • These are known as zoonotic diseases and wildlife trafficking plays a key role in their transmission from animals to humans. 
    • Zoonotic diseases are responsible for over 2 billion cases of human illness and over 2 million human deaths each year, including from Ebola, Mers, HIV, bovine tuberculosis, rabies, and leptospirosis.
  • Wildlife trafficking has also led to the dramatic decline of many species, including rhinos, elephants and pangolins.

How this trade is growing at a higher rate?

  • Despite concerted efforts, illegal wildlife trade has escalated dramatically over the last decade.
  • Human population growth, increasing wealth and access to wildlife, and improved global transport links have all played a part.
  • In parts of Asia where the tradition of wildlife consumption is culturally embedded, demand for particular high-value species has soared.
  • At the other end of the supply chain, rural poverty in the countries that harbour these species is driving desperate people to plunder their own natural resources for scant reward.
  • It is the intermediaries who pocket the lion’s share of the profits; the trade is so lucrative that organised crime syndicates are now actively involved in wildlife trafficking.

Implication of wildlife trafficking:

  • Threat to species: Illegal wildlife trade has the potential to be very damaging. Populations of species on earth declined by an average 40% between 1970 and 2000 - and the second-biggest direct threat to species survival, after habitat destruction, is wildlife trade.
  • Overexploitation: It can cause overexploitationto the point where the survival of a species hangs in the balance. Historically, such overexploitation has caused extinctions or severely threatened species and, as human populations have expanded, demand for wildlife has only increased. This overexploitation is a big concern as it:
    • harms human livelihoods
    • harms the balance of nature
  • Invasive species: Invasive species are as big a threat to the balance of nature as the direct overexploitation by humans of some species. Many invasive species have been purposely introduced by wildlife traders; examples include the American Mink, the Red-eared Terrapin and countless plant species.
  • Incidental killing of non-target species: With wildlife trafficking, non-target species such as dolphins and seabirds get caught. Incidental killing cause damage and death to a variety of animals besides the intended ones.
  • Infectious disease: Human encroachment into biodiverse areas increases the risk of spillover of novel infectious diseases by enabling new contacts between humans and wildlife.

Regulation of wildlife trade:

  • CITES: To address the problem, in 1973 the United Nations General Assembly signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), aimed at stemming the illegal trade in wild animals and rare commodities.
    • CITES is an international agreement between governments. Its aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.
    • It was drafted as a result of a resolution adopted in 1963 at a meeting of members of IUCN (The World Conservation Union). 
    • A State or regional economic integration organization for which the Convention has entered into force is called a Party to CITES. Currently there are 183 Parties. 
      • India is a member to CITES.
    • TRAFFIC: It is the wildlife trade monitoring network, is a joint program of WWF and IUCN – the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
      • Created in 1976, it works to ensure that trade in wild plants and animals is not a threat to the conservation of nature. 
    • World Wildlife Day: UN World Wildlife Day is held each year on the anniversary of the signing. The day helps raise awareness of the many challenges facing the world’s wild animals and plants and the efforts to stamp out illegal trading.


There are ways through which we can reduce, if not completely stop, poaching. If the government of all countries agree to ban the possession of wildlife traded or harvested illegally, by national law; this would reduce the demand and hence reduce the trade itself.

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