Our Burning Planet

OP-ED

The Covid-19 pandemic is a stark warning about the international wildlife trade, and China’s role in it

A woman wearing a mask works in a seafood market in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, China on 25 February 2020. Guangzhou South China Sea Food Market was previously well known for exotic wildlife such as crocodiles, yet now most of the shops in the market are closed. On 24 February, China banned the trade and consumption of wild animals in order to battle the coronavirus. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Alex Plavevski)

The sad fact is that it takes a global health emergency for the world’s biggest consumer of illegally trafficked wildlife products, China, to take action. Time will tell if these actions are real or mere filibustering to deter growing criticism. We wait to hear about crackdowns on illegal fishing, logging and other crimes against the world’s environmental systems.

“It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it”, is a saying that is most applicable in these emotive times of pandemic virus, global trade competition, religious fundamentalism, environmental and climate change, illegal poaching, oil price wars and general economic turmoil in world markets. The tone of one’s discussions can negate the message being conveyed.

The tone of the message came to mind on 9 March 2020 while listening to the Stephen Grootes Sunrise Show on SAFM. A caller, Hein, expressed his views on the Covid-19 virus being a consequence of China’s wet-market practices (aka: wildlife consumption). In a somewhat aggressive and emotive voice, he said: “China must pay for what is happening around the World.” 

Grootes cut his call short – correctly so, as he was unable to reason with the caller as to his manner and tone. Since early March 2020, there have been a number of articles on the news and in the press raising accountability in varying degrees of sensitivity. This got me thinking about how people, society in general, civil organisations and governments should express their disdain when it comes to inappropriate behaviour that may have far-reaching consequences. Hein would have been more convincing and persuasive in his message if he had conveyed such in a calm and level-headed manner. So, when and how do general society and governments hold countries and people responsible for their behaviour? And how politically correct does one need to be in how this message is conveyed?

The global Covid-19 pandemic has established unexpected significance if taken in isolation. Most discussion in the news revolves around the economic consequences. However, if compared to other environmental crimes being committed by people, with tacit support from their governments and their policies, it may be less significant in time and eventual scale.

Illegal wildlife trade and poaching – including decimation of the ocean’s fish stocks, illegal logging of hardwood timbers, plus pollution of our scarce water resources, are all “pandemics” in their own sense and time scale. The current and long-term consequences of these practices will have exceptional impacts on our environment and the many communities that rely on ecological resources for their sustainable way of living. This is clarified in the discussion below, which should by no means be viewed as “China-bashing”. The scientific facts speak for themselves. Countries such as Brazil, and those complicit in illegal environmental activities, take heed.

 

Between 2000 and 2012, forest cover in Tanzania shrank by two million hectares, an area the size of Wales, and by 2.2 million hectares in Mozambique, a WWF analysis showed.

 

The celebrated American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901 – 1978), noted, “we won’t have a society if we destroy the environment”. This can be reworded to say, “without a responsible and accountable society, we won’t have a decent environment”. 

The consequences work both ways with humanity ultimately the poorer. If human animals ceased to exist, the environment, fauna and flora, would reach its own balance and continue to survive. It does not need us. We need it. Accountability for our actions is thus imperative for society’s survival and a decent standard of living for all. Not the current excessively consumptive lifestyle with profit at all costs for a greedy few.

Ocean plunder

Africa’s fish stocks are being looted at an unsustainable rate with devastating consequences for its indigenous communities who rely on fishing for jobs and nutrition. Depletion of fish stocks poses a major health risk for such nations, who rely on fish as a source of protein and micronutrients. These consequences are already felt and will reach pandemic proportions if not dealt with in the near future.

Anthony Kleven, reporting in the Japan Times in 2016, noted the ongoing disputes in the South China Sea around territorial waters – with roughly 50% of its fish stocks fully exploited, 25% over-exploited and the other 25% completely collapsed. It’s not hard to see why relations between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are so fraught when it comes to maritime policy. China now accounts for 34% of all fish consumed every year.

What’s more, by 2030, Chinese consumption is expected to grow by another 30%. With dwindling reserves in the South China Sea, the trawlers are simply moving farther out to sea — all the way as far as the eastern, southern and west African coasts where they encounter much less competition and coast guard protection. For example, only one of the 130 vessels licensed to fish for tuna in Mozambican waters was of Mozambican origin in 2014. Although an estimated 64% of Chinese deepwater fishing activities occur in Africa, the Chinese fleet is increasingly active in Latin America as well.

Destruction of hardwood forests

Beibei Yin, a senior campaigner for Asia Forests, noted in an article in the Global Witness on 1 April 2019 that millions of tons of timber enters China every year, with its vast wood manufacturing sector dependent on raw materials from overseas. However, much of that timber comes from countries where corruption and weak rule of law are leading to high levels of illegal logging. Illegal logging is a global challenge that has direct implications for our ability to fight climate change and biodiversity loss, to promote regional security, to uphold the rights and sustain the livelihoods of often the poorest populations, and to counter deep-rooted corruption.

The British Environmental Inves­tigation Agency calculated that 93% of all logging in Mozambique has been illegal in recent years. Most of the hardwood was shipped to China and over 60% of tropical logs on the global market are imported to China. China itself banned commercial logging in 1998. Since 2013, Mozambique has been China’s biggest wood supplier on the African continent.

Because of illegal timber exports, the country has lost about €113-million in tax revenues since 2007, the agency calculated – money that could have financed Mozambique’s national forest programme for 30 years. It’s not just Mozambique that is being plundered – the Congo Basin, Tanzanian and Madagascan forests are also being cut back at unsustainable rates.

In east, central and west Africa, criminal groups are thought to make more money from selling illegal wood products, up to $9-billion annually, than through street-level drug-dealing, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) reported in 2019. Violent armed groups and “terrorist organisations” in parts of east and central Africa use illegal logging and other forest crimes to finance their activities, UNEP said. 

Between 2000 and 2012, forest cover in Tanzania shrank by two million hectares, an area the size of Wales, and by 2.2 million hectares in Mozambique, a WWF analysis showed.

Wild animal consumption

In 2017, Dr Chris Brown, CEO of the Namibian Chamber of Environment, representing some 40 environmental organisations, wrote an open letter to the Chinese Ambassador in Namibia, Xin Shunkang, with the opening sentence: “Chinese citizens are responsible for much of the wildlife crime taking place in Namibia, inflicting immense damage to the country’s environment and undermining community-based conservation.”

The message in his open letter was clear, “unless effective action is taken now to halt wildlife crime, your country will get an increasingly bad name”. He noted that “until the arrival of Chinese nationals in significant numbers in Namibia, commercial wildlife crime was extremely low. As Chinese nationals moved into all regions of Namibia, setting up businesses, networks, acquiring mineral prospecting licenses and offering payment for wildlife products, the incidence of poaching, illegal wildlife capture, collection, killing and export has increased exponentially”.

“Very few ecosystems are not affected by wildlife trade,” says Dr Vincent Nijman, an anthropologist at Oxford Brookes University in Britain. “It directly impacts a very large number of species and has a knock-on effect on many more species still.” 

“But”, as Nijman pointed out, “any solutions for tackling illegal wildlife trade are unlikely to work without the involvement of one major player: China. From ivory to pangolin scales, to totoaba bladders to shark fins, the country has a ravenous appetite for wildlife products. As China’s economy and population have grown, so too, has demand for animals and their parts.”

Chris Shepherd, executive director of Monitor, a non-profit group that works to reduce illegal wildlife trade says: “A lot of the species that are most threatened on Earth right now are threatened because of demand in China. China has to become a leader in fighting illegal wildlife trade, or else it’s not going to be a pretty future.”

 

There is no doubt that this plundering will, in time, drive indigent communities to greater poverty and malnutrition as their sustainable way of living, and sourcing food is diminished. What other pandemics will then be the consequence?

 

As columnist Tony Weaver has written in Daily Maverick and Die Burger: “Rhino horn, ivory, abalone, tiger and lion bones and claws, and bear bile are just some of the sought-after products (in China). But the pangolin trade is particularly destructive – it takes around 1,900 pangolins killed to produce one ton of scales. In 2018, 48 tons of scales were seized, the equivalent of 91,200 pangolins.”

China reacted fast to the news of the possible bat-pangolin-Covid-19 transmission breakthrough, as reported in Daily Maverick by Don Pinnock and Tiara Walters, and Weaver. 

On 3 February 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping gave the greatest signal yet that a full ban is on the cards. Chairing a meeting to study the prevention and control of Covid-19, he said “it is necessary to strengthen market supervision, resolutely ban and severely crack down on illegal wildlife markets and trade, and control major public health risks from the source,” (Chinese news agency, Xinhua). This was followed on 10 February 2020, where its legislature, the National People’s Congress, announced it would update wildlife protection laws to “toughen the crackdown on wildlife trafficking”. Xinhua reported that “the supervision, inspection and law enforcement should be strengthened to ensure that wildlife trade markets are banned and closed”.

The sad fact is that it takes a global health emergency for the world’s biggest consumer of illegally trafficked wildlife products to take action. Time will tell if these actions are real or mere filibustering to deter growing criticism. We wait to hear about crackdowns on illegal fishing, logging and other crimes being committed against the world’s environmental systems.

Accountability: Time for China and other countries to take responsibility

Around the 4th century BC, Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi was possibly among the first to advocate for ecological sustainability within a philosophy of coexistence between man and nature. Something which our own First People of Africa have been aware of for a very long time. If China is to live up to its stated aims of having positive interactions between peoples and countries, then it needs to start taking responsibility for its citizens around the globe, and particularly in developing countries, such as in Africa and Latin America.

There is ample evidence to show that this has not been the case. Similarly, President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil is moving aggressively to open the Amazon rainforest to commercial development, posing an existential threat to tribes living there. This development will inevitably lead to further desecration of the rain forests with reduction in their ability to act as “green lungs” for Earth.

If countries ignore the consequences of their policies and development agendas to the detriment of the world’s environment, who then takes action, how and to what extent? Does political correctness eclipse telling it as it should be told, calling for accountability and righting the wrongs? Particularly when all the scientific and investigative research has shown that China is the biggest consumer of illegally poached wildlife and is a major player in plundering our oceans, and hardwood timber reserves from developing nations.

There is no doubt that this plundering will, in time, drive indigent communities to greater poverty and malnutrition as their sustainable way of living, and sourcing food is diminished. What other pandemics will then be the consequence?  

Back to the Covid-19 outbreak. On 6 February 2020, it was widely reported that the 34-year-old doctor who first cautioned about the virus, Dr Liu Zhiming, had himself died after becoming infected in mid-January. In late December 2019, he had sent out a message warning colleagues, describing patients in Wuhan with a “worrisome pneumonia-like illness”. Four days later, he was summoned to the Public Security Bureau where he was told to sign a letter. In the letter, he was accused of “making false comments” that had “severely disturbed the social order”.

“We solemnly warn you: If you keep being stubborn, with such impertinence, and continue this illegal activity, you will be brought to justice – is that understood?” he was warned. Underneath, in Dr Li’s handwriting, is written: “Yes, I do.” 

He was one of eight people who police said were being investigated for “spreading rumours”. There have since been suggestions that the virus, known to be zoonotic in nature, and most likely originating from bats with an intermediate, may have come from a research laboratory in Wuhan, fairly close to the wet market where it is thought to have spread from. Investigations and level-headed dialogue are needed between nations to understand the exact origin.

But it would be foolish for societies and governments to ignore the numerous other transgressions of environmental degradation that are occurring throughout the world. Global lockdowns may have curtailed these slightly, but responsible citizenship, organisations and governments need to ensure that these practices do not re-emerge to the unsustainable levels that they have been occurring. Or else more pandemics will arise, notwithstanding the unseen slowly escalating one of increasing poverty and malnutrition around the world.

What is certain though is that China, as a country and global player, will now have to seriously reconsider how its citizens are behaving on the international stage. Governments and residents of developing nations will have to reassess how the plundering of their environmental resources will impact their own citizens and their long-term wellbeing. As Margaret Mead noted: “We won’t have a society if we destroy the environment.” Let the message be heard. Unless we act proactively, Covid-19 will probably be the precursor to further pandemics. DM

Ritchie Morris is a registered scientist and practices as an independent environmental hydrogeologist. He has over 30 years’ experience in the southern Africa region. He writes in his personal capacity and believes that the environmental scientific fraternity needs to be a lot more vocal in getting the message through to populations and societal managers of the true condition of our environment and the pressures to which it is being subjected. 

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