In China, Eat a Rare Animal—Go to Jail

Legislators in the world’s most populous nation have taken endangered species off the menu.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Apr 26, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Salvatore Cardoni holds a political science degree from the George Washington University. He's written about all things environment since 2007.

“Put down the chopsticks, and step away from the pangolin stew!”

Chinese diners of rare animals will soon be hearing such commands from police officers after the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, the country’s top legislative body, reinterpreted an existing law Thursday, making it illegal to knowingly eat endangered species. Offenders could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison.

In China, it is already illegal to catch, kill, or trade in rare animals, but the ramifications for eating them were murky until now.

“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,” said Lang Sheng, deputy head of parliament’s Legislative Affairs Commission.

The Chinese government classifies 420 species of indigenous wild animals as rare or endangered, including tigers, giant pandas, pangolins, and Asian black bears.

Rare animals have long been a staple of traditional Chinese cuisine and medicine.

Though there is no scientific basis for such claims, the roasted scales of a pangolin, for example, are believed to detoxify the body and treat asthma and cancer. The meat of the scaled mammal is considered a delicacy by China’s emerging middle class. According to one estimate, poachers have killed up to 182,000 pangolins since 2011.

Pressured by both international and in-state animal activists, Chinese officials finally appear to be recognizing their citizens’ role in the poaching epidemic. Two dozen people were arrested in January for trafficking animal parts across nine Chinese provinces. And in a public display intended to discourage smuggling and reduce demand, authorities crushed six tons of elephant ivory in March.

This week’s amended law only emboldens activists. “This is very, very encouraging,” said Grace Gabriel, Asia regional director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. “Adding consumption to the criminal law can play a very important part in curtailing and…stigmatizing” dining on rare animals, she said.