More lenient treatment for illicit trade in captive-bred wildlife

China’s supreme court and procuratorate has released an interpretation on criminal cases involving wild animals and their products, covering poaching, harming, trafficking, transporting and buying.

Most noteworthy is its instructions on how courts should handle cases involving captive-bred wild animal species. Two kinds of case should generally not be deemed criminal, and if they are, they should be treated leniently.

The first is where an animal appears on the “list of national key protected wild animals for artificial breeding”. Currently there are 30 such species, including the sika deer and the Siamese crocodile. Breeding these animals requires a permit and identification tags for each bred individual to ensure traceability after sale, according to the Wild Animals Protection Law. The court interpretation doesn’t make clear if these are still the prerequisites for activities to be deemed not criminal.

The second is where technology for breeding the animal is “mature”, breeding is happening at “large scale”, and the animal is traded and transported as a pet. The emphasis on pets is a nod to the ban on eating wild animals by China’s highest legislature in late February 2020, as a response to the Covid-19 outbreak. But there is no definition of what counts as “mature” technology and “large scale” breeding.

The court used the Fischer’s lovebird as an example. Criminalising breeders of this small parrot should be handled “with great caution” because although it is listed in CITES Appendix II, and hence treated as a Class II protected animal in China, it has been bred for 30 years, with the technology to do so now “highly mature”, and most breeding has happened without due permits for “historical reasons”.

The “utilisation mentality” has been a great obstacle to wildlife conservation in China. Captive breeding has posed challenges for enforcing conservation laws, as it is difficult to tell wild and captive-bred individuals apart, and the latter help maintain a market for the former. 

There have been calls for the state to institute a single breeding “whitelist”, with strict conditions for inclusion and monitoring, and a ban on breeding all other animals. But that hasn’t come to pass. 

The new judicial interpretation could potentially make it harder to control illegal trade in protected wild animals in China. 

See our earlier reporting on China’s wildlife utilisation whitelist.