China’s scaling back of wildlife farming sanctions raises concerns

Wang Lei spent more than 200 days behind bars after being prosecuted in 2020 for possessing 14 artificially bred Hermann’s tortoises, an endangered species. He was to serve another two years – until an opinion from the country’s highest court forced the local prosecutor’s office to drop the charges.

Wang, a farmer from Yucheng, Shandong province, had purchased the captive-bred Hermann tortoises in 2018. After his arrest two years later, Wang was initially sentenced to three years in prison and a fine of 40,000 yuan. ($5,980) in a city court. for illegally purchasing rare and endangered wildlife species under national protection.

Traditionally, China imposes heavy fines and penalties on wildlife traders and farmers. Critics say the severity of the penalties is not commensurate with offenses involving protected animals that are also artificially bred and domesticated.

In response, the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate issued a new judicial interpretation reclassifying most wildlife trafficking cases as an administrative offense rather than a criminal one, relieving many people from heavy penalties.

The “interpretation of several issues regarding law enforcement in handling criminal cases of destruction of wild animal resources” revolved around Wang’s case. It was announced on April 7 and took effect two days later. This put an end to controversial issues regarding the artificial breeding of endangered animals.

While some note that the new interpretation would reduce undue penalties, others wonder whether lighter penalties might further encourage wildlife trafficking. There are also fears that Chinese administrative agencies will face more challenges to increase expertise and wildlife law enforcement.

Artificial breeding controversy

Prior to the publication of the interpretation, Chinese courts ruled on cases related to the unauthorized domestication of wild animals based on “quantitative assessment” instead of taking into account “assessment of value”. of the animal in question – an assessment based on factors such as environmental value and risk of extinction.

Take the case of the Shenzhen green-cheeked conures, which the Supreme People’s Court named one of the 10 most controversial lawsuits in 2016. During the trial, the trial court sentenced the defendant to five years jail time for raising 47 state-protected conures, even though 45 of the birds had not been sold. The draconian decision enraged the public, who believed (albeit wrongly) that pets were not considered wild animals. Recognizing the backlash, the Supreme People’s Court reduced the sentence to two years. The original decision, according to the judge who heard the appeal in the second instance court, failed to recognize the difference between undomesticated and domesticated wild animals, “leading to sentences disproportionate to the offense and overwhelming the public perception of criminal justice”.

The new interpretation, on the other hand, is more lenient. It states that the breeding and trade of endangered species that have been recovered by artificial breeding techniques is not a criminal offence. For example, although green-cheeked conures are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), to which China is a signatory, the species has gone through more than 30 years assisted reproduction in China. “We must apply criminal sanctions in cases like this with caution, prioritizing the use of administrative sanctions,” a spokesperson for the Supreme People’s Court research office said.

Less severe sentence

In the past, selling or owning even a single protected animal was considered a violation of Chinese criminal laws. Si Weijiang, a lawyer who defended the defendant in the conure case, pointed out that compared to other countries, China has imposed harsher penalties for trafficking in animals listed in Schedules I and II of the CITES. Given the low threshold of criminal sanction, the courts tend to pronounce sentences disproportionate to the value of the animals marketed. According to an article published by the Research Office of the Supreme People’s Court, between 2017 and 2021, 46.07% of cases involving trade in protected animals or related products led to severe criminal penalties, compared to an average of 10 .7% of all criminal penalties considered severe. .

Given the new interpretation’s position of determining the sentence by taking into account the amount of animals trafficked, the research bureau’s paper suggests that wildlife trafficking would only be punishable when the total value exceeds 20,000 yuan. This reduces the rate of severe penalties as approximately 75% of protected animals will be assessed differently in their value. For the remaining 25% of protected animals, trafficking in these animals would still be a criminal offense because they fall under Class I conservation, which assigns breeds on this list a value of more than 20,000 yuan individually.

Many conservationists have expressed concern that the reduction in penalties would encourage traffickers to take risks. “It is unlikely that the court will sentence an offender to more than 10 years (i.e. a severe sentence) in prison,” a spokesperson for Let Birds Fly, a non-profit organization, told Caixin. lucrative environmentalist. While the previous law imposes stiff penalties for trafficking 16 pangolins (a Class I species), the organization notes that the interpretation lowers the threshold, making trafficking less than 25 pangolins ineligible for incarceration. Similarly, the trade in more than 10 swans (a Class II species) would have warranted severe criminal penalties before the interpretation was rolled out. Now, it takes the trafficking of 134 swans for the court to apply severe penalties.

Others are less worried. Violators who are not punished by criminal law would face administrative penalties, said Huang Jiade, a lawyer who defended Wang. “Building a social order requires more than cruel and unnecessary punishment,” he added.

Application Challenges

The shift from quantity to value in sentencing, under the interpretation, means administrative divisions now face a host of challenges when dealing with incidents previously considered criminal cases. This implies coordination between the administration and enforcement of criminal law, which is not an easy task. According to an official from Let Birds Fly, Chinese forest department staff are not only bogged down by bureaucracy, but also lack basic wildlife knowledge, with some unable to recognize local bird species. The Forest Department also may not effectively deter wildlife trafficking because it “lacks the surveillance technology that the Public Safety Department has.”

In distributing licenses for the artificial reproduction of wild animals, the forest department had to deal with wandering herders. Last December, police cracked down on an “animal laundering” case in which a municipal zoo authorized to assist in wildlife breeding purchased golden snub-nosed monkeys (each worth between 70,000 yuan and 75,000 yuan ) to animal traffickers. The zoo then over-reported the number of monkeys to the forest department to create a facade for successful artificial breeding, before selling these illegally acquired monkeys to provincial zoos for 500,000 yuan each.

Besides captive breeding licenses, another way to protect endangered animals is to issue them with “wildlife certificates”. Wild animals and related property are given a unique identification code, which helps authorities trace the source through records in databases. On May 6, the National Forestry and Grassland Administration issued wildlife certificates for 19 endangered species, including gray parrots, monk parakeets and African spurred tortoises.

But even this certification process is known to have been abused by profit-hungry companies, who allegedly falsify documents and make fortunes selling unlicensed wildlife products. A Beijing pharmaceutical company, for example, had been found guilty of falsifying certificates for 50,000 pangolins and nearly a million antelope horns.

Bruce Shen is a freelance writer.

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