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How to Reduce Wildlife Consumption in China after COVID-19?

LIU JIN / AFP

The COVID-19 pandemic has aroused worldwide attention to wildlife consumption in China. So what is the current consumption like? Why do the Chinese have that obsession? And how can we reduce consumption in the future?

“Pangolins, turtles, snakes, and some kinds of birds… My family used to eat at home a lot, but now they prefer to go to the restaurants.”

The interviewee, Chen, is from a second-tier city in Guangdong, southern China. Though studying away from her hometown for years, she still has a deep impression of her family’s habit of wildlife consumption and the locals’ enthusiasm for wildlife.

With the outbreak of COVID-19 started from Wuhan, China, suspicions spread that the unsustainable consumption of bushmeat in China might have worsened the infection of the virus from the suspected intermediate hosts such as pangolins, arousing worldwide attention to wildlife consumption.

What’s the Situation With Wildlife Consumption in China?

China is known as one of the countries with the greatest demand and consumption of wildlife products globally. It’s estimated that the number of Chinese local pangolins decreased by 90% from the 1960s to the early 21st century.

The lack of local pangolin resources has made pangolins the most trafficked non-human mammals in the world. Although all of the species of pangolins are listed as the most endangered animals in Appendix I, the demand for them is still increasing in China, especially from the mid-aged, well- educated males with a high level of income, as the living standard rises. Consequently, pangolins might be wiped out in 10 years after surviving over 60 million years.

Considering the severe consequences of excessive wildlife consumption, China has made great efforts to inhibit this wild growth. Recently, China has elevated all species of pangolins from the second class national protected animals to the first class to reinforce the protection.

However, the national trade ban doesn’t efficiently reduce demand of stubborn consumers. Instead, it transfers potential wildlife consumption to the secondary markets in neighboring countries, like Burma, Laos and Vietnam, which have become the transitory ports for illegal wildlife trafficking, said Elle, from Wildlife Conservation Society.

There is increasing recognition of the need for more multifaceted responses.

Understanding the motivation for consumption is gradually adopted as the first step of the solution. The theoretical basis will provide for further campaigns to combat the growing wildlife consumption in China.

Why Are Some Chinese People so Obsessed Consuming With Wildlife Products?

The factors that motivate people to consume wildlife products are complicated, multifaceted, and diverse, including physical, psychological, cultural, and socialized relevant motivations. Of all, three psychological factors represent Chinese consumers’ motivations.

A. “Face consumption” psychology

Face consumption refers to the purchases that are not for the practical needs, taste, or quality, but merely for the admiration or praise from the others, which is similar to money worship or showoff psychology.

As the price of wildlife products is relatively high, some Chinese consumers consider wildlife consumption as a suitable means to show off their living standards and elevate their social status.

The study led by the TRAFFIC also evidenced this phenomenon. More than 25% of 969 surveyors from different regions in China stated “raising social status” as one of the primary motivations of the wildlife consumption.

Cases such as the “pangolin prince and princess” who were investigated in 2017 because of the posts of “pangolin feast” on the social media also reflect that face consumption psychology is common in Chinese consumers.

With the improvement of the living standards in China during the last decade, more and more populations in China have acquired enough economic strength to consume expensive products, breeding increasing demands for products with the value that can bring them with social recognition.[i] The high-priced wildlife gradually becomes the prime target of Chinese consumers.

B. Social influence: conformity to the experts

Informational social influence can lead to real, long-lasting changes in opinions or behavior that occur when we conform to people with expert power who we believe have accurate information, like reporters, and doctors.

As TCM has thrived for thousands of years before the formal introduction of western medicine in the early 19th century, TCM treatments are widely advocated by the Chinese despite continuous controversies of its scientifically-proven mechanism.

Herbs and wildlife products are the main ingredients in TCM. Before the removal of the entry listed in the Pharmacopoeia of the People’s Republic of China (CHP) in June this year, which suggested pangolin scales’ value in addressing lactation difficulties, doctors in TCM usually adopt pangolin scales in the face of the relevant disease. In fact, their therapeutic value hasn’t been proved yet.

With the powerful effect of the expert power, people with specifically related symptoms are inclined to take medicine made of pangolin scales. Since the amount of pangolin scales for medicine bought by the official is up to 26,6 tones each year, the rest of the massive unsatisfied demands facilitates the development of the illegal black market.

Studies have also found that the promotion of the function of wildlife products in TCM have molded some deeply-rooted belief that ‘edible’ wildlife is nourishing and has curative value. “My family members eat that bushmeat mainly because they think that wild meat is good to their health though they can’t tell what the bushmeat is good for.” Chen said.

“We can’t tell if TCM works or not actually. But there’s one thing for sure that the Chinese have trust in TCM overall.” Karen, the lead reporter of Global Pangolin Report, said.

C. Cultural influence

As culture is the fundamental determinant of people’s thoughts and behaviors, the Chinese culture’s distinctive values and norms serve to mold Chinese consumers’ psychological motives toward wildlife consumption.

One of the most popular beliefs among wildlife consumers is that “the rarer, the better.” As a household idiom, the view is entrenched in the culture. “Some other motivations are the byproducts of this cultural belief: People try to elevate themselves by buying ivory because they think scarcity represents value.” Elle said.

Consumers in some regions, including Guangdong province, usually put “All the animals with their back outside can be made as food” on the lips. They place the “natural selection” as their consumption guideline, which means humans are endowed with the advanced rights and abilities to hunt and eat all the animals.

“We don’t know where these values come from, but we just accept and inherit them naturally.” Chen said, “It’s such a natural process that we can’t realize we’ve been fed on those values, making it hard to get rid of them.” Chen told us that she had tried to persuade her family members to stop eating bushmeat, but failed all the time.

So, Why Then Do Other Chinese People Say No to Wildlife Consumption?

Although the flourishing demand for wildlife products is motivated by diverse factors, there is still a significant proportion of Chinese resistant to wildlife consumption. According to a survey in 2019, nearly 75% of the participants from different cities in China claimed that they wouldn’t buy any wildlife products in the future.

Nearly 39% of the participants placed illegality as the prime inhibiting factor. About 10% reject ivory trade because of the inhumanity of consumption and the importance of wildlife conservation.

“I can’t understand why some Chinese would consume wildlife products at the cost of irreversible destroy to the ecosystem.” said Wei, a high school student from Shanghai, China.

Gu, a student from Nanjing, agreed that considering the unethical treatment to the wildlife, including cutting off half of a living elephant’s face to get the ivory, it is unnecessary and improper to consume wildlife.

The interviews with the high school students suggested that they have taken the opposing stance since they were children. “This view is felt like a strong faith, which was sowed in my mind at an early age and constantly grew up with me.” Said Shi, another student from Shanghai, China.

How Can We Further Reduce Wildlife Consumption in China?

The responses revealed the long-lasting power of early-gained values,such as ethics, humanity, and caring for the environment. “People are likely to stick to the values learned in childhood. Therefore, how to cultivate children’s correct consumption values and wildlife conservation senses is a key task in the development of wildlife conservation.” said Wang, who works in China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation on environmental education.

Studies have found that middle childhood, from 6-11 years old, and adolescence, from 11 to 18 years old, are the two crucial periods in the lifelong development for the understanding of morality and acquisition of life-long personal values.

Since Chinese’s knowledge and awareness in wildlife conservation is considered as “rather limited” and “very inadequate” in the TRAFFIC report and the interviews, there’s an urgent need for early wildlife education.

Realizing the importance of wildlife education, numbers of NGOs have carried out relevant programs. China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation is a representative. Since the organization first launched a program called “Green Youth” in 2018, more than 1000 students, ranging from kindergarten kids to junior high school students, have engaged in wildlife and environment conservation by attending lectures given by expert.

However, wildlife education is not widely promoted in China, 80% of the interviewed high school students said they had never received formal lessons on wildlife conservation.

“There’s still a long way to go to achieve the real success of wildlife conservation education in China,” said Elle. “At the same time, combination with the enforcement of laws and advertising education through the mass media is also needed to fulfill our ambition to reduce current and future wildlife demand and consumption.”

“This pandemic is like a warning, reminding people of the possible consequences of unsustainable wildlife consumption; it’s also like a whistle, calling for further wildlife conservation measures.” said Elle.

“Hope efforts will be made to combat the unsustainable wildlife consumption in China shortly after this provoking wildlife education lesson the pandemic gives.” Said Wang.

China House is a social enterprise that brings young Chinese to the global south for research, conservation activities and development projects.

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