BEIJING — Bears, tigers, pangolins and a range of other endangered animals are facing bleaker prospects than ever.
A draft amendment to China’s wildlife protection law has infuriated conservationists by confirming that it is legal to breed endangered species in captivity for commercial use and for performances — and even for body parts to be used in traditional medicine, health-care products and food.
And for the first time, it also gives provincial and municipal government the power to license commercial trade in endangered species. The proposed legislation was made public Jan. 1 and was open for public consultation or comment until Friday.
China already has some 200 tiger farms, with more than 5,000 big cats kept in often cramped conditions for public exhibition and to feed a thriving underground industry in tiger-bone wine and pelts.
More than 10,000 bears are also farmed, most kept in small cages, with their bile periodically — and painfully — extracted for use in household products and traditional Chinese medicine. Pangolins face extinction because of their use in Chinese medicine.
Conservationists had hoped that the revised law, eagerly anticipated and years in the making, would put a stop to those practices and emphasize wildlife protection rather than commercial exploitation. Instead, they say, their pleas have been largely ignored, and they call the new law not just a missed opportunity but in many ways a step backward.
“China needs a wildlife protection law, not a wildlife utilization law,” said Iris Ho, of Humane Society International in Washington. “Legitimizing commercial breeding facilities that have no conservation benefit is akin to giving animal cruelty a stamp of approval.”
Grace Gabriel, Asia regional director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said wildlife farming in China was already stimulating demand, providing a cover for poaching and helping to wipe out many species in the wild. The revised law would exacerbate that situation, she added.
At a news conference in Beijing on Wednesday, Chinese conservationists expressed frustration and disappointment.
Mang Ping, a professor in ecological ethics at the Central Institute of Socialist Studies in Beijing, said she was among only a few conservationists invited to provide input on the legislation at a seminar organized by the State Forestry Administration.
“Around 40 guests were there, but only four were from animal protection institutions, while the rest were from the wildlife industry,” she said. “They were powerful and loud. Our voice was swamped.”
Although the draft law does authorize strong criminal sanctions for the illegal purchase and sale of endangered species, it does not criminalize possession, making it hard to enforce.
It also authorizes provincial or municipal governments to issue permits for captive breeding and public exhibition or performances.
That provision reduces the level of central government oversight of the captive breeding industry, experts said, further empowering local, commercial interests at the expense of a national vision of wildlife protection.
Already, conservationists argue, the government’s system for licensing trade in ivory, tiger skins and other wildlife products is opaque, poorly enforced and widely abused.
“The bill not only fails to plug the loopholes in the existing law, but it creates more,” said An Xiang, a lawyer in Beijing. “It reflects the fact that lawmaking has been kidnapped by powerful and rich wild-animal commercial groups.”
Debbie Banks, a tiger expert at the Environmental Investigation Agency in London, said the draft law would, if adopted, “further entrench policies of captive breeding for commercial use of parts and derivatives of captive tigers.”
Conservationists say the tiger-farming industry is stimulating demand for tiger-bone wine — which is used to treat rheumatism and impotence — as well as for tiger-skin rugs, a status symbol for the wealthy. That, in turn, encourages more poaching of wild tigers in neighboring countries.
“This increases the risk of trade and demand for tiger parts and products spiraling out of control,” Banks said.
Dave Neale, animal welfare director at Animals Asia, said legislators missed an opportunity to tackle bear-bile farming by failing to include specific provisions that would have demanded that animals’ physical and behavioral needs are met — something that is effectively impossible during bile farming.
The draft law also allows for endangered wildlife to be used in “traditional Chinese medicine, health-care supplements and foodstuffs,” as long as it is in line with other laws, public order and “good morals.”
Already, Chinese demand for wildlife parts and products has pushed many animals close to extinction. Among them is the Chinese pangolin, a scaly anteater whose meat is considered a delicacy and whose scales are used in traditional medicine in China and Vietnam.
With few pangolins left in China, there has been a surge in poaching and trafficking from Southeast Asia and even Africa: The pangolin may now be the most heavily trafficked mammal in the world. Its blood, scales and body parts are used to stimulate lactation, enhance virility and treat ailments from arthritis to cancer.
“The revision of the law that allows use of wildlife products for ‘health-care supplements’ use could open the floodgates to pangolin use and spells doom for the already imperiled animal,” said Ho, of Humane Society International.
Conservationists welcomed some clauses in the new law.
WildAid, which has helped lead efforts to change attitudes toward shark-fin, ivory and rhino-horn use among Chinese consumers, noted a new focus on raising public awareness of wildlife protection with the support of civil society. Some welcomed the fact that the new legislation mentions habitat protection, although others said those provisions were too vague.
“Many endangered animals are at the top of the food chain,” said Xie Yan, founder of the Protected Area Friendly System. “They cannot survive if their food is not protected. The bill should have aimed to protect the entire ecosystem, not some particular species.”
Xu Jing contributed to this report.