Chinese diners who enjoy bear bile, tiger bones and pangolin meat now have a new reason to lay down their chopsticks.
China's top legislative body passed a new "interpretation" of the country's criminal law on Thursday that will allow authorities to jail people who knowingly eat products made from rare wild animals. Prison sentences for the offence range from under three years to more than a decade, the state newswire Xinhua reported.
Beijing classifies 420 species as rare or endangered, including giant pandas, golden monkeys, Asian black bears and pangolins – scaly, slow-moving anteaters which curl into balls to avoid their predators. While China already promises harsh fines and jail sentences for people who catch, kill, traffic, buy and sell the animals, it has until now remained unclear on the potential consequences for eating them.
"This is very, very encouraging," said Grace Gabriel, Asia regional director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, a US-based animal rights organisation. "Including wildlife consumption in the criminal law can play a very important part in curtailing, and also stigmatising, wildlife consumption."
In recent decades, China's growing wealth has engendered a thriving illegal market in endangered wildlife products. Many businesspeople and status-obsessed officials believe that certain rare animal parts – shark fins, bear bile, tiger bone – posses medicinal properties, and that spending large amounts of money on them confers social prestige.
"Eating rare wild animals is not only bad social conduct but also a main reason why illegal hunting has not been stopped despite repeated crackdowns," Lang Sheng, deputy head of the legislative affairs commission of the NPC standing committee, told Xinhua.
Chinese authorities finally seem to recognise the scope of the problem. In March, 24 people were arrested for trafficking in wild animal parts and 4,500 products confiscated in police raids across nine provinces, state media reported. In January, authorities in the southern province Guangdong crushed six tonnes of confiscated elephant ivory in a public ceremony to discourage smugglers.
Last summer, customs officials in the northern Inner Mongolia region arrested two Russian nationals for smuggling 213 bear paws into China in the tyres of a van – their load, state media said, was worth more than £250,000.
Earlier this month, three Chinese nationals were arrested in Namibia, after they were found trying to board a flight to Hong Kong with 14 foil-wrapped rhino horns and leopard skins hidden in their luggage.
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