Tibetan antelopes search for food near a bridge on the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, which has special passageways for wild animals to cross through (XINHUA)
After years of deliberation and calls from campaigners, animal rights and welfare have been highlighted in China's newly revised Law on the Protection of Wildlife. The law was adopted by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC), China's top legislature, on July 2, the first time that the law had been revised since it came into force in 1989.
Zhang Dejiang, Chairman of the NPC Standing Committee, said that the law, which will take effect from January 1 next year, will play an important role in protecting biodiversity and ecological equilibrium, as well as coordinating the development of mankind with nature.
"The law establishes the principle of prioritizing the protection of wild animals. It is a big step in the country's wildlife legislation," Yue Zhongming, Deputy Director of the Office of Economic Law under the NPC Standing Committee's Legislative Affairs Commission, said at a press conference on July 2.
Lawmakers have attempted to put an official end to the centuries-old habit of eating wild animals, imposing a ban on the production and sale of food made from state-protected wild animals and products derived from them. Additionally, food from wild animals not under state protection but lacking proof of a legitimate source is banned too. People who illegally purchase state-protected wild animals and derived products for food could face criminal penalties.
The law also stipulates that captivity-bred animals should be used in research programs as well as in the production of derived products, rather than wild animals.
A critical piece of the legislation also refers to wild animals' habitats. "The preservation of habitats is the key in the protection of wildlife species," Zhai Yong, Director of the Office of Law and Act under the NPC Environment Protection and Resources Conservation Committee, said at the July 2 press conference.
Zhai's remarks are well-founded considering the economic development, particularly in the form of large-scale infrastructure projects, which has caused severe damage to the habitats of wild animals.
Du Yunhui, a researcher with the Appraisal Center for Environment and Engineering at the Ministry of Environmental Protection, pointed out how highway and railroad projects often cut through animal habitats, disturbing their migration and communication. At a 2015 seminar in Beijing on the legal protection of wild animals, Du said that animal deaths caused by traffic accidents, as well as noise and lights from vehicles, are common.
The degradation of ecological systems also poses a threat to wild animals. Generally, water conservation projects and port construction will alter the environmental conditions of rivers, leading to the destruction of the habitats of aquatic animals, including fish and birds.
A recent survey, jointly conducted by the State Forestry Administration and the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, showed that China's coastal wetlands are gradually shrinking, gravely threatening the survival of local wildlife species. "Even without killing, wild animals cannot live on without hospitable habitats," Du said.
The new law bans illegal hunting as well as the damaging of habitats and requires authorities to reduce the negative impact of development. For example, if operators of a construction project are found guilty of not taking effective measures to eliminate or reduce its impact on wildlife, the project may be suspended with fines of up to 1 million yuan ($150,000).
Captive birds are released during a government-organized activity in Sanya, Hainan Province, on December 2, 2013 (XINHUA)
Aside from animal right campaigners and scholars, many ordinary people have paid attention to the legislation because it outlaws the unauthorized release of captive animals into the wild in response to growing concerns about the practice.
In April of this year, a post on Weibo, a popular Twitter-like micro-blogging service in China, showed a person releasing various creatures, including bedbugs, snakes and apple snails, into the wild in southwest China's Yunnan Province.
The apple snail is a South American species that has caused acute damage to rice crops across Asia. "It will damage paddy field ecology, affect crop growth and reduce the population of native species, perhaps even to extinction," Rao Dingqi, an entomologist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told Xinhua News Agency.
But to many Chinese people, releasing animals into the wild, known as fangsheng, is helpful for cultivating kindness, compassion and benevolence. This is a Buddhist practice dating back to the Han Dynasty (202 B.C.-A.D. 220).
The tradition has drawn controversial attention in recent years, as the release of animals such as guinea pigs and venomous snakes poses a risk to human life and/or causes extensive damage to local species and the ecosystem.
"Releasing animals is an activity requiring ecological knowledge. People must know about the animals' habitats and habits before releasing them into the wild to guarantee their survival and protect the local ecosystem," Deng Xuejian, a professor at the Changsha-based Hunan Normal University in Hunan Province, said in an interview with Hunan Daily.
In 2014, a picture capturing a woman releasing venomous snakes in a park in Guangzhou, south China's Guangdong Province, went viral after appearing on a local newspaper, with many accusing her of putting nearby residents at risk.
In another incident in March this year, more than 300 foxes and raccoon dogs were released without authorization in a rural area of Beijing's Huairou District. Over the following days, some local villagers had their chickens attacked by the animals that were recently released.
Eventually, workers from Huairou's Forestry Bureau recovered more than 100 foxes. Many were already dead, presumably from starvation. According to the bureau, having been raised in captivity, the animals were unable to survive in the wild.
The new wildlife protection law stipulates that only authorities at the provincial level or above are permitted to organize the release of captive animals. Any organization or individual releasing captive animals should make sure the species is indigenous and fit to survive in the wild.
According to the law, the release should have no impact upon local people or harm the ecosystem. Those who free captive animals in a reckless manner, that cause property damage, physical injury to others, or jeopardizes the ecosystem, will be held accountable.
Xie Yan, a researcher at the Institute of Zoology under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, opposes individuals releasing animals into the wild. "The most effective way is to let professionals take the responsibility of releasing animals because only they know when and what kind of animals are suitable for release," Xie told Xinhua. "Those who are interested in participating in the protection of wild animals should learn from professionals beforehand," he added.
Copyedited by Dominic James Madar
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