Global biodiversity warning as China sees surge in illegal hunting

A team of scientists have said the world needs to be concerned over the rise of illegal hunting in China.

The team from the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) in the US  has warned illegal hunting and trading of wildlife in China is becoming a significant threat to biodiversity and public health.

The paper, “Assessing the illegal hunting of native wildlife in China,” Is co-authored by Dan Liang, Xingli Giam, Sifan Hu, Liang Ma, and David Wilcove, and found that a tiny fraction of illegal hunting in China is reported.

The researchers used Chinese court documents that tracked convictions for illegal hunting in the country, and then created a series of models to predict how much more widespread the extent of illegal hunting is beyond the individuals who were caught and prosecuted.

The court documents revealed a total of 9,256 convictions for the illegal hunting of more than three million individual animals from 2014 to 2020. Those animals represented more than 20% of China’s bird, mammal, reptile, and amphibian species, and included almost a quarter of the endangered species in those categories.

“We were very surprised by the large number of species that were illegally hunted in the space of just six years,” said co-author Dan Liang.

“But of course,” added fellow author David Wilcove, “only a fraction of the actual number of hunting incidents results in prosecution and conviction, so that means these numbers must be the tip of the iceberg. And so, we then applied various statistical methods to show that, in fact, the iceberg is very large indeed.”

The team said there is limited evidence in the field to suggest how much bigger the metaphorical iceberg is, but the researchers cited some of their ongoing work that indicates it’s optimistic to think that even 1% of all illegal hunting incidents are detected and prosecuted.

The researchers were more conservative for the paper. For an extrapolation analysis, they assumed that 10% of all illegal hunting incidents had been detected and prosecuted and then estimated the total number of species that were likely hunted. They concluded that at least 28% of China’s native terrestrial vertebrate species, including 40% of its birds, may have been taken during this period. They further identified an additional 781 species, including more than 90 threatened species, which were likely to have been targeted by hunters over the course of the six years.

“Illegal activities are inherently very difficult to study because, by definition, people don’t talk about them or practice them out in the open,” Wilcove explained. “It’s quite a scientific challenge.”

Additionally, the researchers found that only 5% of convictions accounted for 90% of the individual animals that had been illegally hunted, which suggested that large commercial poaching operations were responsible for much of the loss of wildlife.

The paper is clear that the illegal hunting of wildlife is a threat to China’s biodiversity and creates a potential public health risk to the people of China because of the possibility of transmission of diseases from hunted animals to people. The researchers also note that the problem does not stop at China’s borders.

“The rest of the world should also be concerned,” Wilcove warned. “First, the loss of biodiversity in China is a loss of biodiversity for the whole world. Second, there’s no reason to believe that China is unique in terms of this problem. In fact, there’s evidence of hunting depleting wildlife populations in many parts of the world. And third, disease outbreaks stemming from the wildlife trade have the potential to escape the borders of any one country.”