It has been more than a month since the coronavirus outbreak in China, yet the number of people infected is still on the rise, and China is still in semi-moratorium for an indefinite amount of time. If it continues on, the effects of the epidemic is going to be impossible to quantify. Amid the emergency, people start to exclaim that the consequences of our actions are too expensive.
But if they are asked, “what exactly did we learn?” Among all the possible answers, they would reply that we have learned to regulate and cease illegal wildlife trade.
Seventeen years ago, we have come to the same conclusion after the SARS outbreak. We have then hoped that everyone would realize that wild animals are not our food, that illegal dealings can be halted. Seventeen years after, we are making the same mistake.
I rather be optimistic and believe that the epidemic can warn everyone against the consequences of illegal trading, but this thought is dangerous and unrealistic. Above all, our society does not lack sophists and money-grubbing individuals. The former spread the fallacious statement in the Internet that the virus is intentionally released as a ploy of certain foreign government. The latter even assured investigating journalists that they would assume their animal business after the situation gets better.
Admittedly, beside these extreme cases, most people are indignant at illegal trade. But what happens after the outbreak? Facing this kind of social environment, can the painful memory of coronavirus persist in the future? The answer remains rather clear if we consider the minuscule impacts of SARS outbreak.
I earnestly believe that more people would partake in the conservation of wild animal and the environment after this dreadful event. However, we have to acknowledge the fact that the significance of this epidemic would be fleeting if environmental awareness is not established. Without the reinforcement of a firm environmental awareness, the educational effect of this epidemic would be grossly insufficient to support the base of conservation efforts in the future.
The present amount of ignorance has caused some absurdities. Residents in Shanghai asked the staffs of local Wildlife Management Center to expel the wintering bats that were seen around their apartments. Fish and turtles were thrown out by vendors in the pet markets. Worse, some cats and dogs were even abandoned by their owners. These phenomena showed just how important the role of ignorance in creating these uncontrollable self-preservation actions. By eliminating what these people think is the source of the influenza, they not only fail to achieve their purpose of self-preservation, but also increase the likelihood of contracting salmonella or rabies.
Above all, this is the result of the absence of environmental awareness. Many people do not regard wildlife as an integral part of the world, nor do they think that humans should make appropriate compromises for them and learn to live with them.
My Chinese ancestors regarded rare birds as a sign of fortune. They also treated pangolins, ant-eating mammals that are now at great threat of extinction, as precious meat. In One Thousand Reasons Why, once a popular science book series in China, the authors explained in detail how to catch sea turtles in the ocean, listed the benefits of badger oil, and even concluded that humans were destined to conquer nature.
Exploitation and confrontation, these two words best conclude many Chinese people’s relationship with nature. Mixed with the food culture in China, the exploitation and confrontation has only gotten worse. We exploited nature by importing exotic species in order to satisfy our own purposes, and not surprisingly, they became invasive species without the presence of predators. We confronted nature by killing wild animals for consumption, and not surprisingly, we saw the outbreak of previously unseen viruses.
Care and respect, these are the altitude that we should have to maintain sustainable development. We should treat animals properly while keeping a proper distance from them, and recognize that the rules of nature is powerful and inviolable.
If the residents have understood that urban ecosystems can accommodate bats and birds, they would not choose to expel these wild animals. If consumers have appreciated the beauty of animals in the wilderness, they would no longer think of the pursuit of wilderness as purchasing wildlife in a market full of blood and feather.
What we learned from the epidemic is that building the public’s environmental consciousness is an urgent and necessary task, which is connected closely to public safety. Understanding is a prerequisite for conservation. There needs to be a group of people who are able to present the truth, spread valuable knowledge, and transmit feelings to the public. This is no small task, but the BBC is doing it, the Guoke (a Chinese science website) is doing it, countless organizations and individuals are doing it. I’m not afraid it won’t work, I’m afraid it’s too late when time comes.
More than a century ago, the United States, just like China today, faced threats to sustainable development. Fortunately, some people stepped up, promoting the establishment of national consciousness and legislative work. As a direct result, the national park system was established before the vast wilderness was destroyed.
Therefore, it behooves the Chinese government to establish environmental awareness on a national level and to improve its wildlife protection laws. The success of such system, in this case, depends on the efforts of our people.