BEIJING — A proposed revision to China‘s Wildlife Protection Law is being criticized by conservationists who fear it could legitimize the commercial exploitation of endangered species, such as tigers, bears and pangolins.
“This is not a step forward,” said Toby Zhang, director of Ta Foundation, an animal protection organization based in Beijing. “This is a surrender to the wrong and the benighted.”
The draft legislation would be the first major revision of the 1989 law, which animal welfare advocates had long faulted as providing inadequate safeguards for wildlife, and some proposed changes have won their praise. For example, the bill opens with a mention of its intent to protect not just animals but also their habitats. And it states for the first time that the state has a responsibility to help maintain biodiversity.
The draft legislation was made public on Jan. 1 and open for comment until last Friday.
But where the existing law is vague about the legality of trading and breeding endangered species for food and medicine — a situation critics said opened too many loopholes for animal exploitation and abuse — the proposed revisions make explicit that endangered species are “natural resources” that can be legally bred in captivity for commercial purposes. And it shifts the power for licensing these activities from the central government to provincial ones, which critics say are more likely to bend to local economic interests.
Some of the proposed changes could overturn existing animal protections, conservationists say.
Since 2010, zoos in all Chinese cities have been banned from staging animal performances. And while there are more bears being held captive for their bile, used in traditional medical potions, than in years past, public resistance has become more vocal. Trade in tiger bone and rhino horn was banned in 1993.
The new law, if passed, could jeopardize these gains, conservationists and some legal experts say.
One draft clause could legalize animal performances if a provincial-level government granted a permit. Another clause in the bill says the use of wild animals as medicine, supplements or food must be “in conformity with the country’s related laws and regulations on Chinese traditional medicine, supplements and food,” without specifying which related laws, whether those dealing with consumer safety or those dealing with the sources of ingredients.
“A major step backward and a disaster for conservation,” said An Xiang, the director of Dexiang Law Firm in Beijing, who has campaigned for animal welfare legislation. He said he viewed the medicine and food clause as a green light for activities like bear bile farming and eating tigers and pangolins.
“If the current law is vague and stops shy of allowing the commercial use of animals,” Mr. An said, “the new law is brazenly detailed about it, telling you how these animals may be used and where to go to get a permit.”
Mr. Zhang, who said his Ta Foundation was involved in drafting the bill, agreed that commercial interests overtook the final proposal. He said that the foundation had collaborated with the State Council’s Development Research Center, a government think tank, to organize seminars in which lawmakers met with environmentalists, legal law professionals, government officials and business representatives.
Five such meetings were held last year, Mr. Zhang said. “Every time, we were presented a draft containing inputs from the previous discussion. The officials were open-minded, and everybody got a fair hearing,” he said.
“But then at the last meeting in September, we saw the reverse. The views of businesses were strengthened, while those of the conservationists were reduced.”
The version posted on Jan. 1 largely reflects the situation in September, he said.
Some, while critical of the new law, take a less dire view.
Zhou Ke, a law professor at Renmin University in Beijing who provided the government with legal opinions during the drafting of the bill, said that the clause addressing animal parts used in food and medicine would not affect China’s commitment to the protection of endangered species as required by its own regulations and international treaties like the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. But he agreed that some of the wording in the draft “makes it sound like eating wild animals is now encouraged when it should be discouraged.”
Supporters of the bill, including government agencies that manage wildlife, have defended using wild animals as natural resources. In an interview in The Paper last month, a news site based in Shanghai, Yan Xun, a wildlife conservation official at the State Forestry Administration of China, called the approach a necessity for the economy in “some places.” He did not cite examples.
“The law was not made just for animal protection groups,” Mr. Yan was quoted as saying.
Shifting licensing authority from the central government to provincial governments will allow regulators to focus on their main tasks, he added. “We will have more time to supervise and make rules,” he told The Paper.
“In the past, we spent most of our time issuing licenses.”