Beijing bans selling songbirds

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 2008:

BEIJING–Trafficking in song thrushes and
six other bird species often kept as caged pets
is now banned throughout China, effective since
January 1, 2008.
Birds already in private possession may
remain with those who have them, but may not be
sold or traded.
The seven prohibited bird species, also
including parakeets, larks, and mynahs, were
reportedly the first additions since 1989 to the
Chinese list of protected wildlife.

“The aim is to try to save China’s
dwindling numbers of birds,” reported Jane
Macartney, Beijing correspondent for the London
But while billed as a conservation
measure, the ban appears to have multiple goals,
including helping to protect the public from the
deadly avian flu H5N1, and comes as the Chinese
government appears to be experimentally inching
toward passage of long promised national humane
A national humane law, rumored for more
than two years in official state media, is
expected to be formally introduced before the
2008 Olympic Games, to be held in Beijing this
Preliminary to the introduction, Beijing
and regional governments appear to be testing
public response to the enforcement of existing
laws that can protect animals. The enforcement
targets appear to be practices identified as
unacceptably cruel by public opinion research,
including surveys of 1,300 university students
done in 2002 and 2003 by Peter Li, Zu Shuxian,
& Su Pei-feng, whose findings appeared in the
May 2004 edition of ANIMAL PEOPLE.
Keeping birds in cages was deemed
unacceptably cruel by 54% of the respondents in
both years. This was among the highest rates of
disapproval expressed toward any practices that
are both common and legal.
In a possibly parallel example,
Guangzhou bureau of forestry director Guo Qinghe
suppressed human consumption of cats during the
first weekend of November 2007 by announcing on
local television his intent to enforce a
four-year-old law against selling wildlife to
prohibit selling snakes.
Also billed as a conservation measure,
the law was originally directed at selling civets
and other mammals suspected as the host species
for Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome. Using the
law to halt selling snakes in effect banned a
dish called “dragon fighting tiger,” which
combines snake and cat meat, and is believed to
be the most common manner of eating cats. Cats
have historically been eaten in Guangzhou since
circa 1350, but are rarely eaten anywhere else
in China.
Guo acted at a time when snake
trafficking was not controversial, but less than
a week before Guangzhou hosted the 2nd China
Companion Animal Symposium, hosted by the
Animals Asia Foundation, with 39 Chinese humane
organizations participating.
Official state media soon moved to
reinforce Guo’s edict by depicting the snake
trade as socially unacceptable. Chen Hung of
China Daily prominently exposed snake smuggling,
asserting that snakes smuggled into Guangzhou are
sold primarily as pets. Sixty-seven of 106
snakes and lizards recently confiscated from one
trafficker were of globally protected species,
Chen Hung wrote.
Keeping caged birds and eating cats and
snakes were apparently not widely practiced in
the time of Confucious, who lived from 551 to
476 B.C., and outlined principles of government
that have been observed by most Chinese leaders
ever since. A central concept of Confucian rule
is that change should be introduced in
increments, each meant to reduce resistance to
the next.
“The custom of keeping birds dates back
as early as the Han dynasty of 206 B.C. to A.D.
220,” wrote Macartney, “when governors kept
their feathered pets in private gardens. In the
Tang dynasty, 618-907, the wealthy and the
scholars began to collect exotic birds brought
into China as tribute. The practice of catching
wild birds such as larks and orioles to keep in
captivity was introduced in the Song dynasty,
960-1270. The Manchu invaders who set up the
Qing dynasty, 1644-1911, popularised the
Before the current national bird trade
ban, Macartney noted, “The customers of the
trade were Beijing’s more elderly residents.
Early in the morning in the capital’s parks and
alleys, grey-haired men gathered around a
cluster of bird cages to chat and compare avian
talesÅ Old men with their pet birds are a
quintessential feature of Beijing. Entire markets
have grown up selling bird paraphernalia such as
bamboo and wooden cages and tiny porcelain water
While the State Council of China may be
taking advantage of increasing public opinion
against keeping caged songbirds, the prohibition
against selling them appears to be most directly
descended from a November 2006 State Council
recommendation that local governments should stop
permitting new live poultry markets in urban
areas, and to begin relocating existing live
poultry markets away from populated areas.
Hong Kong closed the Bird Garden market,
a longtime local landmark, in June 2007, after
a mynah sold at the market turned out to have
Other nations with long traditions of
keeping caged songbirds have been moving in the
same direction as China.
Kuwait, for example, in February 2007
closed markets selling live poultry and
songbirds, and banned all bird imports, after
H5N1 killed 20 falcons at the only zoo in the
country and 19 birds who were caged in private
yards. The live bird trade became suspect in
Kuwait in November 2005, following the discovery
of H5N1 in a dead flamingo who had been a
quasi-pet at a seaside villa.
Also in February 2007, H5N1 appeared at
the Moscow bird market in Russia, spreading to
six other parts of the city before it was
recognized. Russian national veterinarian
Nikolai Vlasov supervised the slaughter of about
1,400 birds who were confiscated from the bird
market, plus 200 other caged birds who had been
exposed to them.
Further H5N1 outbreaks killed several
hundred yard poultry at multiple sites in the
Moscow suburbs.
“We suspect that H5N1 was transported by
exotic birds who were illegally brought from
Azer-baijan, Iran, or from the Krasnodar
region,” in southern Russia, Vlasov told
Agence France-Presse.

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