COVID-19 triggers sustained crackdown on illegal fishers, poachers, & traffickers
BEIJING, China—Cracking down on wildlife-related crime in response to the global COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, China prosecuted more than 15,000 alleged perpetrators in the first nine months of 2020.
About 7,000 prosecutions were for illegal fishing, 4,000 for poaching land animals and birds, and 3,000 for engaging in illegal commerce in products from protected wild species, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate announced in a November 9, 2020 web posting.
The reported prosecutions for illegal fishing appear to be unrelated to recent escalated expulsions of foreign fishers from waters claimed by China.
1,138 fishing boats chased out of northern South China Sea
“In September 2020,” Shashank Bengali and Vo Kieu Bao Uyen recounted for the Los Angeles Times on November 12, 2020, “the China Coast Guard reported that it had expelled 1,138 foreign fishing boats from the northern half of the South China Sea in the preceding four months, boarded and inspected dozens, and detained 11 boats and 66 foreign crew members, ‘effectively safeguarding our fishery interests and maritime rights.'”
The foreign fishing crew members, mostly Vietnamese, were not prosecuted in Chinese courts, but instead were released to return to their home nations, also believed to include the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Taiwan.
Wildlife crime is suspected conduit for COVID-19
Intensified Chinese governmental attention to wildlife-related crime began in January 2020, when early epidemiological indications suggested that COVID-19, originating among horseshoe bats, first spread to humans at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, a south-central Chinese city of about 10 million people.
COVID-19 was not detected among the animals at the live market, however, and earlier cases were eventually found among humans who had never visited the market.
Nonetheless, the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market appears to be where infected humans first infected large numbers of other humans, and wildlife-related crime remains the suspected conduit for COVID-19 reaching the human population.
U.S. does not keep national wildlife crime statistics
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service keeps no set of wildlife crime data comparable to the Chinese data that covers the U.S. as a whole, since most U.S. prosecutions for wildlife-related crimes are conducted at the state level.
Available information indicates, however, that China might already have prosecuted more people for wildlife-related crime in 2020 than U.S. wildlife agencies prosecute in ten years or more.
The Supreme People’s Procuratorate said prosecutions were up by two-thirds from 2019.
“The procuratorate warned that a large proportion of the illegal wildlife business had shifted online,” wrote David Stanway and Tom Brown for the National Post, a Toronto-based Canadian newspaper.
Of particular concern to the Supreme People’s Procuratorate is a trend toward wildlife traffickers marketing poached animals and live exotic pets through e-commerce platforms and social media.
E-commerce leads to mass deaths in transit
The magnitude of online pet sales in China was illustrated in September 2020, CBS News reporter Grace Qi observed, when “At least 5,000 pets were found dead in cardboard shipping boxes” at the Dongxing Logistics station in Henan province, Central China, “likely casualties of a miscommunication in the supply chain of China’s thriving mass-breeding industry,” Qi said.
“The animals included rabbits, guinea pigs, cats and dogs, all held in plastic or metal cages wrapped in cardboard boxes with breathing holes. They had been left in the boxes without food or water for about a week,” Qi continued, possibly “because of a delayed collection, as the logistics company involved may have refused to sign off on a shipment violating transport laws.
The incident was brought to light by the state-run Global Times newspaper, Qi said.
Rescuers saved some
A local rescuer calling herself Sister Hua and 20 fellow volunteers “managed to rescue 200 rabbits and 50 dogs and cats from the scene,” Qi added.
“Many were adopted on site and the severely ill animals were sent to veterinary clinics,” said Qi.
But “After the rescue operation in Luohe city,” Qi finished, “Hua and her charity heard about another batch of animals being transported to the nearby village of Dameng. After 13 hours of further rescue operations, the group was able to save about 1,000 more animals, mostly rabbits.”
Unfortunately, another 1,000 animals reportedly died in the Dameng incident.
Americans have no room for finger-pointing
As in regard to the illegal fishing, poaching, and wildlife trafficking prosecutions, Americans have no room for pointing fingers.
Maine Second Congressional District representative Chellie Pingree on August 21, 2020 led 23 fellow members of the House of Representatives in asking postmaster general Louis DeJoy and Sonny Perdue, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, to “investigate the recent deaths of thousands of mail-order chicks,” and to take “immediate action to rectify this issue.”
Pingree cited, among many other cases of live chicks dying due to delays while in custody of the U.S. Postal Service, the deaths of 4,800 chicks in a single hatchery shipment.
COVID-19 moves with frozen shrimp, salmon, pork
The Chinese crackdown on wildlife-related crime comes parallel to a national effort to intercept transmission of COVID-19 via frozen fish and meat imports.
While most of the world has paid little attention to this possible mode of transmission, customs officials in Dalian, China on July 22, 2020 reportedly found COVID-19 “in the packaging of frozen white shrimp imported from Ecuador,” after earlier finding COVID-19 “on a chopping board used to cut salmon at Xinfadi, a large wholesale food market in Beijing,” the Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases [ProMED] said.
Another 16 cases of COVID-19 reaching China with imported frozen animal products were detected through October 2020.
A Tianjin loading dock worker who on October 19, 2020 handled an infected pork shipment sent from Bremen, Germany, to Shandong, China, was on November 8, 2020 reported to have contracted COVID-19 himself.
In addition, a Tianjin truck driver who “lugged goods from a frozen storage cluster in the city’s Binhai New Area” was reported on November 5, 2020 to have developed an asymptomatic COVID-19 infection, ProMED summarized.