Leveraging SARS to Reduce Illegal Wildlife Trade in China

January 2004

TRAFFIC East Asia is in the midst of a new project to combat illegal wildlife trade in China with the unlikely help of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

TRAFFIC, an international network of experts on wildlife trade issues, intends to harness concern about the spread of SARS to reduce demand for wild animal consumption in the long-term.

While SARS has been a human tragedy, it has nonetheless spotlighted the use of wildlife in modern China.

Experts believe the flu-like disease first emerged in China's southern province of Guangdong in 2002 and ultimately caused 774 deaths in 27 countries, including about 300 deaths in China. Health concerns have now become an entry to discussions about sustainable use and conservation of wildlife in China and traders and consumers are more aware of the uncertain future of endangered species.

Over the past 15 years, China's Wildlife Conservation Law (1988) has not effectively prevented illegal trade. While primarily a health concern, the suspicion that the SARS virus may have jumped to humans from exotic wild animal food products led to proposals from within the Chinese government during the 2003 outbreak to prohibit the consumption of wild animals.

In response to SARS in 2003, Chinese officials confiscated more than 800,000 animals from markets and arrested over 4,000 people for selling protected species.

This week, in response to a newly confirmed SARS case in Guangdong, the government began shutting wildlife markets in the province and exterminating thousands of masked palm civets and other animals on sale—a move that World Health Organization officials said may be in haste but, if not undertaken with extreme care, could cause further health risks and eliminate evidence of the origins of the disease.

As part of the project launched in October 2003 with support from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), TRAFFIC aims to develop a strategy to leverage concern about health issues, such as SARS, into concrete conservation impact in ways that are responsive to cultural, social and economic circumstances to ensure long-term success.

A joint program of WWF and IUCN-The World Conservation Union, TRAFFIC hopes to engage with relevant partners such as the WWF China Program, the IUCN/SSC Veterinary Specialist Group, the World Health Organization and the State Forestry Administration in China to identify actions needed to strengthen enforcement of China's existing wildlife laws and build a constituency of consumers in China for sustainable wildlife use. Ultimately, the project aims to reduce illegal and unsustainable wildlife trade in China.

The use of wildlife in China has deep cultural roots, and the key to change will be in raising the importance of the concept of sustainable use in decisions about wildlife consumption, according to Craig Kirkpatrick, director of the TRAFFIC East Asia regional office in Hong Kong. However, he says by leveraging public and government concern about SARS, the opportunity is ripe to raise awareness and encourage action that protects China's endangered wildlife and promotes sustainable use of wildlife resources.

Support for this particular project is part of CEPF's strategic approach in the Mountains of Southwest China biodiversity hotspot to integrate conservation concerns and benefits into the implementation of policy and programs at local, regional and national levels. For more information on CEPF investment priorities in this hotspot, visit the special Mountains of Southwest China section.