In 2004, authorities in southern China ordered the slaughter of thousands of civets, a cat-like mammal thought to have transmitted SARS to humans. At the time, China was in the middle of a crackdown on the wildlife trade — a huge business that supplies exotic cats for restaurants, pangolin scales for traditional medicines and much else. China’s wild animal markets, once an urban fixture, were to be a thing of the past.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. As recently as 2016, officials estimated that the legal breeding of “wild” animals for markets and medicine cabinets was a nearly $75 billion business, employing some 14 million people.

Now the emergence of a global pandemic thought to have originated in a Wuhan wet market has prompted the government to try again: It recently banned the trade and consumption of wild animals outright, including those bred on farms. It’s a crowd-pleasing order, but it’s destined to fail, thanks to an array of powerful cultural and economic demands.

For centuries, Chinese have embraced rare and exotic ingredients, including wildlife, for food and medicine. Some people include them in sophisticated dishes; others use them to display wealth or to honor guests. Adherents of traditional medicine may ascribe particular healing qualities to the organs or fluids of certain species. Bear bile, for example, is thought to be an anti-inflammatory.

Access to such products was historically limited to the rich and powerful. But by the late 1970s, China’s economic reforms were providing farmers with an opportunity to sell products in commercial markets just as an emerging middle class could afford them. By the 1990s, once unattainable luxuries had become accessible and consumption soared.

That growth was not without serious problems. Nobody knows how much of China’s animal demand is fulfilled by poaching, but it has contributed to the endangerment of species globally. Meanwhile, conditions on China’s wild animal farms are often unsanitary and inhumane — and have long worried scientists on the lookout for novel pandemics.

For all that, the government still views wildlife breeding as a critical rural industry, worthy of state funding. In November, just a month before Wuhan’s doctors began raising the alarm, a state-run newspaper in Jiangxi province ran an article praising such breeding as a “sunrise industry” for millions of farmers. It highlighted households that were “heading down the road to prosperity” by raising flocks of civets, raccoons, deer, squirrels and other wildlife. In rural China, large-scale breeding of everything from snakes to bullfrogs was — until February — celebrated by the government.

The ban has (for now) put an end to those operations, as well as to the millions of jobs that depended on them. It also seems to have slowed the demand for eating wild animals. But a decline in demand is not a cessation. As the memory of the pandemic wanes, wildlife consumption will recover, just as it did after the SARS epidemic. If there’s no legal trade, the black market will likely rise to meet demand. Already “wild” animals are reappearing in China’s wet markets. A government plan to offer tax incentives for selling wildlife overseas will hardly help.

With this latest crackdown set to fail, China should make long-term investments in regulations and enforcement to end the worst aspects of the wildlife trade. A good opportunity will come later this year when the government updates its 30-year-old Wildlife Law. Step one should be establishing a legal distinction between captive-bred and wild populations, and then imposing harsh criminal penalties for trading the latter. Likewise, China should update and expand its three-decade-old list of protected species, exclude the protected ones from legal trade and finally clean up the wet markets where such products are usually sold.

A bigger challenge is the establishment of a traceable supply chain for captive-bred wildlife. Without it, scientists may never be able to trace the genesis of emerging pathogens or other hazards, much less distinguish between wild and captive-bred animals. Technologies such as blockchain and radio-frequency identifiers are being tested in traditional livestock operations around the world. China should experiment with similar solutions for tracking the smaller-scale but highly lucrative wildlife trade.

None of these steps are as emotionally satisfying as a ban, of course. But unlike the haphazard regulation that led to the coronavirus, they’re more likely to keep a pathogen from running wild.

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg columnist.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.