BANGKOK -- Chinese President Xi Jingping has become an ally of Southeast Asian sleuths on the trail of criminal gangs involved in the illegal wildlife trade, an unexpected -- and positive -- side effect of the new coronavirus epidemic.
Xi issued a directive banning wildlife smuggling, giving a shot in the arm to Thai investigators, who have been battling the illegal trade for decades. Thailand is a key node for traffickers looking to move their catch from the forests of Africa to markets in China.
"This ban may be the right time for us to get more data about traffickers," said Maj. Gen. Viwat Chaisangka, head of the Thai police's natural resources and environmental crime unit. "It will help to stop the wildlife trade."
A Southeast Asian diplomat echoed that sentiment, saying Xi's decree "needs to be capitalized on as a disrupter," to enable investigators to arrest local and foreign operatives feeding off the transnational supply chain for wild animals, carcasses, bones and body parts. "This bottleneck presents a rare opportunity," the diplomat said.
The United Nations Environment Program estimates the global illicit wildlife trade at more than $23 billion a year, making it the fourth-largest black market after illegal drugs, human trafficking and arms smuggling. Conservative estimates of the trade in Southeast Asia, which caters to growing demand in China, are around $2 billion, according to campaigners working to stamp it out.
Xi's order prompted the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress to adopt a resolution banning the illegal wildlife trade in an "all-around way." It includes a prohibition on "hunting, catching, trading, transporting and eating wild animals." It also forbids the consumption of "terrestrial wild animals that grow and breed naturally in the wild environment."
The backdrop for Xi's ban was a Feb. 3 meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China convened to discuss the coronavirus outbreak. "We have long recognized that the risk of eating wild animals is high, but the 'wild meat industry' is still large, which poses a major potential risk to public health and safety. We can no longer be indifferent," Xi is reported to have said, according to people in Beijing working to halt the wild animal trade.
The link between wildlife and the coronavirus emerged as the disease spread, shining a spotlight on China's voracious appetite for wild animals, some of which are shipped from overseas and some bred on farms in China.
According to Freeland, a Bangkok-based conservation group, China's domestic wildlife breeding business is worth around $7 billion annually, about a third as much as the global trade in illegal wildlife. But "given how these licensed facilities are also laundering illegal wildlife, the figures [may be] much higher," the group said in a report published earlier this week.
Among the animals bred on China's wildlife farms are civet cats, which were identified as the carrier, via bats, of the sudden acute respiratory syndrome virus that emerged in 2002 and 2003. SARS sickened more than 8,000 people, 770 of whom died.
The new coronavirus, which has infected over 80,000 people and resulted in 2,700 deaths, has been linked to pangolins, a scaly anteater considered a delicacy in China and Vietnam. The animal's scales are crushed and used in traditional Chinese medicine. And as with SARS, infectious disease specialists are looking into whether the new coronavirus originated with bats before jumping to pangolins.
"SARS was a coronavirus that leapt from animals to people," said Stanley Fenwick, a veterinary and public health professor at Tufts University in the U.S. "Lots of viruses occur in bats because they are a reservoir of viruses."
The demand for African pangolins in China and Vietnam has made it "the most illegally trafficked animal in the world in just a few years," the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime revealed in a 2019 report: "Transnational Organized Crime in Southeast Asia: Evolution, Growth and Impact." The study found that "over the past decade, more than 1 million individual pangolins are estimated to have been killed."
The pangolin smuggling trail through Southeast Asia highlights that grim picture. In the first half of 2019, over 30 tons of pangolin scales were seized by officials in Sabah, Malaysia; 8.3 tons were seized at the port of Haiphong in Vietnam; and over 25 tons were impounded in Singapore, according to UNODC.
Thailand's profile in the trade has risen as demand for pangolin meat and body parts has grown. "More than 50% of pangolins traded to China goes through Thailand," said Steven Galster, founder of Freeland. "They are supplied from Congo, Uganda and parts of West and Central Africa."
Galster called Xi's disruption of the supply chain "a scenario that was not envisioned." Freeland plans to press Southeast Asian governments to follow China's lead. The group also plans to target markets and restaurants that profit from the illegal wildlife trade in Southeast Asia's cities and tourist resorts.
"Pangolin meat is a delicacy served to select clients in restaurants and party boats in Vietnam and Thailand," said Galster. "The meat is more expensive than shark fin soup."