Horrific scale of SA’s live wild animal trade to China exposed

May 20, 2020 | Commentary

By Andreas Wilson-Spath – Daily Maverick/Conservation Action Trust

Chimpanzees, Bengal tigers, wolves, wild dogs and lions are among thousands of endangered wild animals exported, sometimes in contravention of CITES regulations, often in shameful conditions.

At a time when the entire globe is reeling from a deadly disease that originated in wild animals and many species face the risk of extinction, a new report just released reveals that thousands of live wild animals  – continued to be exported from South Africa to China right up to lockdown, purely for profit.

Its findings provide damning evidence of dysfunctional regulations and permitting procedures, criminality and greed alongside a deep neglect of animal welfare concerns and nature conservation principles. 

Gambling with global health

The hard-hitting investigative report published by two South African organisations, the EMS Foundation and Ban Animal Trading, shows that between 2015 and 2019, at least 5035 live wild animals were legally exported from South Africa to China.

This “extremely conservative estimate” is based on the painstaking inspection of hundreds of export permits, which are often difficult to obtain, and on in-person visits to the destinations in China to which the animals were supposedly delivered.

The list of animals exported comprises a bewildering array of species ranging from the relatively mundane kudu and giraffe to chimpanzees, African penguins, wolves, ring-tailed lemurs and no fewer than 45 Bengal tigers.

Trading living wild animals on international markets considerably increases the risk of future outbreaks of zoonotic illnesses like Covid-19, which are hosted by animals and transmitted to humans, by bringing disease vectors (bacteria and viruses) into closer proximity to people. In the case of Covid-19, there is scientific evidence to suggest that highly-trafficked and endangered Malayan pangolins sold in Chinese ‘wet’ markets acted as an intermediary link between virus-hosting bats and humans.

The connection between the industry and disease transmission is well established and its scale illustrates the immense threat it represents to our health. Globally, exports were estimated at some 100 million animals per year in 2014. In China, alone, the trade and consumption of wild animals – much of it illegal and most of it unregulated – is valued at a staggering 520 billion yuan (US$74 billion).

It should come as no surprise then, that the “multiple of 1 billion direct and indirect contacts among wildlife, humans, and domestic animals” resulting from the wildlife trade annually, represents a major public health problem and that mathematical models confirm the dramatic increase in the probability of future zoonotic disease outbreaks.

As a major exporter of live wild animals, South Africa’s considerable contribution to this multi-billion rand business not only potentially exposes local workers to diseases – known or as yet undiscovered – but it also helps to legitimise an industry that puts people around the globe at risk of deadly pandemics and the economic mayhem they trigger.

Astonishingly, the report notes that South African exports continued even at the time when China reached its peak of the Covid-19 outbreak.

Poorly regulated trade

It bears emphasising that all of the trade in wild animals described in the report is supposedly legal. At least some of it is meant to be monitored and controlled through a system of regulations under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

In inspecting hundreds of South African export permits, however, the authors have documented numerous instances in which the CITES regulations were treated casually at best and disregarded entirely at worst.

Examples include incorrectly dated, undated and unsigned permits, permits listing incorrect numbers, ages and places of origin for the animals involved, as well as permits giving untraceable or fictitious destination addresses in China and illegal shipments masked as legitimate exports.

There appears to be little vetting of traders – both exporters and importers – some of which have in the past been implicated in illicit wildlife trafficking themselves or been associated with criminal smuggling syndicates.

In an illustrative case, 18 chimpanzees were legally exported from the Hartebeespoort Snake and Animal Park – not a CITES-registered chimpanzee breeding facility – to the Beijing Wild Animal Park in 2019. According to the researchers the permit documents include no evidence to confirm that the chimpanzees, a species listed on CITES’ Appendix I, indicating its status as threatened with extinction, were either legally acquired by the seller or bred in captivity rather than caught in the wild (as is required by CITES regulations). In the absence of this crucial information, a permit should never have been issued.

In another instance, the unsigned import permit for ten cheetahs, also an Appendix I species, sold to the Zhengzhou Zoo in 2018, was only issued after the export permit was issued, which is in violation of CITES regulations.

In the case of animals that don’t appear on any CITES Appendix, of which there were at least 2,465 between 2014 and 2019, trade is even less regulated, with their origin or destination frequently unknown.

This includes African Wild Dogs, 35 of which made their way to China in 2018 and 2019, even though they are classified as endangered in South Africa and included on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s infamous Red List.

Of the 1394 meerkats exported during the period investigated, the destination of 1154 is unknown, and while 321 giraffes were sold to Jinan Wildlife World, a visit to this zoo found only 16 individuals present with the whereabouts of the others unknown.

According to the report, “the majority of the permits were in breach of CITES regulations, and contained one or more false, vague or questionable declarations”. The authors conclude that in most cases “the exports that have been permitted should never have been allowed to take place.”

While “the ‘box-ticking exercise’ that defines CITES […] creates the illusion of a well-controlled system of compliance, efficiency and verification and therefore protection”, the distressing picture that emerges is one of an extremely lucrative trade riddled with frequently exploited regulatory gaps and loopholes along with rules that are scandalously lacking in transparency, implementation, oversight or enforcement on either the South African or Chinese side.

Instead of offering protection for individual animals, endangered species and human health, this system facilitates illegal trafficking by providing a front for laundering animals caught in the wild into the nominally legal trade and stimulating demand for them in Chinese markets.

Animal welfare concerns

While CITES rules are supposed to guarantee that exported live wild animals go to “appropriate and acceptable destinations”, those traded from South Africa to China may end up being used as pets, curios, food, ingredients in traditional medical practices, zoo exhibits or laboratory test subjects.

The report notes that since many animals are sold on to unknown third parties by the initial importers, their final destination is frequently impossible to ascertain.

Facilities housing imported wild animals in China are often of an inferior standard. In the case of the chimpanzees sold to the Beijing Wild Animal Park, for example, their accommodation was not yet completed on their arrival in the country and the facility did not have qualified staff to take care of them.

Many of the animals are destined for China’s thousands of government-run or privately-owned “safari parks”, zoos, theme parks and circuses for the sole purpose of entertainment. According to the report, several of these institutions have been exposed for animal abuse, poor conditions and facilities, training wild animals to perform for audiences and illegally buying wild-caught animals.

Most of the non-human primates exported from South Africa, including hundreds of marmosets, are sold to brokers, wholesalers and breeding farms, and many of them end up in laboratories conducting experiments, including vivisection, for the biomedical, cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries.

Morally bankrupt government policies

The evidence presented in the report makes it abundantly clear that South Africa’s trade in live wild animals has no conservation value whatsoever. Given the involvement of endangered species, the frequently dubious final destinations in China and the fact that the trade stimulates growing demand, it’s more likely to have a detrimental impact on biodiversity and species survival.

The true motivation for this industry is not hard to find. The 18 chimps exported from a commercial entity in South Africa for supposedly non-commercial purposes to a commercial entity in China came at a cost of over R7.5-million. The report lists the going price for 100 meerkats at R600,000, 57 giraffes at R 7-million and 18 African Wild Dogs at R1-million.

The South African government has been actively enabling this profit-driven industry for years. It has done so through its laissez-faire disregard for CITES and its own export regulations and through its aggressive promotion of a ‘sustainable use’ philosophy that treats wild animals as mere commodities to be bred and sold while leaving conservation concerns to the supposed benevolence of international markets. The only invisible hand at play, however, is that of the neoliberal ideologues and profiteers that appear to have the ear of the powers that be in Pretoria.

According to Michele Pickover, the director of the EMS Foundation, copies of an earlier and equally damaging EMS/Ban Animal Trading report on South Africa’s trade in lion bones clearly detailing illegal activities was sent to various domestic authorities and individuals in government. “We never received any response from any of them,” she says. “This is not a case of incompetence. They are ignoring us.” 

Given the Covid-19 disaster, ignoring this issue amounts to criminal negligence. As long as the South African government continues to support and legitimise an industry that endangers the biodiversity of domestic ecosystems while exposing the entire world to novel zoonotic diseases, it bears some responsibility for the devastating ecological, human health and financial consequences it causes. 

The authors call for government to abandon its controversial wildlife trade policies and to ban the export of living wild animals and their body parts altogether.

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