BEIJING • A proposed revision to China's Wildlife Protection Law is being criticised by conservationists who fear it could legitimise the commercial exploitation of endangered species such as tigers, bears and pangolins.
The draft legislation would be the first major revision of the 1989 law, which animal welfare advocates had long faulted as providing inadequate safeguards for wildlife, and some proposed changes have won their praise. For example, the Bill opens with a mention of its intent to protect not just animals but also their habitats. And it states for the first time that the state has a responsibility to help maintain biodiversity.
But the existing law is vague about the legality of trading and breeding endangered species for food and medicine - a situation which critics said opened too many loopholes for animal exploitation and abuse.
The proposed revisions make it explicit that endangered species are "natural resources" that can be legally bred in captivity for commercial purposes. And they shift the power for licensing these activities from the central government to provincial ones, which critics say are more likely to bend to local economic interests.
"This is not a step forward," said Mr Toby Zhang, director of Ta Foundation, an animal protection organisation based in Beijing. "This is a surrender to the wrong and the benighted."
The draft legislation was made public on Jan 1 and open for comment until last Friday.
Some of the proposed changes could overturn existing animal protections, conservationists say. Since 2010, zoos in all Chinese cities have been banned from staging animal performances. And while there are more bears being held captive for their bile - used in traditional medical potions - than in years past, public resistance has become more vocal. Trade in tiger bone and rhino horn was banned in 1993.
The new law, if passed, could jeopardise these gains, conservationists and some legal experts say.
One draft clause could legalise animal performances if a provincial-level government grants a permit. Another clause in the Bill says the use of wild animals as medicine, supplements or food must be "in conformity with the country's related laws and regulations on Chinese traditional medicine, supplements and food", without specifying which related laws, whether those dealing with consumer safety or the sources of ingredients.
"A major step backwards and a disaster for conservation," said Mr An Xiang, the director of Dexiang Law Firm in Beijing, who has campaigned for animal welfare legislation. He said he viewed the medicine and food clause as a green light for activities like bear bile farming.
"If the current law is vague and stops shy of allowing the commercial use of animals, the new law is brazenly detailed about it, telling you how these animals may be used and where to go to get a permit," said Mr An.
Mr Zhang, who said his Ta Foundation was involved in drafting the Bill, agreed that commercial interests overtook the final proposal.
He said the foundation had collaborated with the State Council's Development Research Centre, a government think-tank, to organise seminars in which lawmakers met environmentalists, legal professionals, government officials and business representatives.
Five such meetings were held last year, Mr Zhang said.
"Every time we were presented a draft containing inputs from the previous discussion. The officials were open-minded, and everybody got a fair hearing," he said.
"But then at the last meeting in September, we saw the reverse. The views of businesses were strengthened, while those of the conservationists were reduced."
Supporters of the Bill, including government agencies that manage wildlife, have defended using wild animals as natural resources.
In an interview last month in The Paper, a news site based in Shanghai, Mr Yan Xun, a wildlife conservation official at the State Forestry Administration of China, called the approach a necessity for the economy in "some places". He did not cite examples.
"The law was not made just for animal protection groups," he was quoted as saying.
NEW YORK TIMES