China has urged zoos to stop serving wild animal products and holding wildlife performances in an attempt to improve the treatment of tigers, bears and other animals amid concerns over widespread abuse in zoos and wildlife parks.
The Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development posted the suggestions on its website Tuesday and said inspections would be carried out to see if zoos were complying.
Animal welfare groups have documented widespread abuse in Chinese zoos and wildlife parks, including animal neglect, beatings, and the illegal sale of wine or soup made from the bones of endangered tigers.
The Hong Kong-based animal welfare group Animals Asia Foundation released a report in August that said bears in Chinese zoos were regularly whipped and beaten with sticks, while elephants were prodded with metal hooks, and tigers and lions were defanged and declawed, causing them chronic pain.
Earlier this year, 11 rare Siberian tigers died at a wildlife park in China's frigid northeast and zookeepers there said they didn't have enough funding to feed or take care of them properly. Rights groups said the zoo might have been selling the tiger skins and bones on the black market.
Sales of tiger bone, penis, pelts and other parts are illegal in China but persist because some consumers believe the products increase potency or can cure ailments from convulsions to skin disease.
The housing ministry said zoos should provide adequate food and shelter for their animals, halt all sales of wildlife products in zoo restaurants or stores and stop staging animal performances.
It said zoos could be shut down or receive a citation if they disobey the guidelines during the three-month inspection period that began Oct. 18. But it did not say whether the requirements would eventually be made permanent.
The Animals Asia Foundation said black bears are the most popular animal performers in China, typically forced to ride bicycles, tricycles and even horses, and regularly whipped or beaten with sticks by their trainers.
Sun Quanhui, a Wildlife Conservation Society researcher based in northeast China's Hunchun city, said Wednesday that the suggestions from the housing ministry were "very welcome news," but that they did not amount to a long-term solution to China's animal abuse problems.
China has been working on a draft animal protection law, but it has yet to be finalized and it's unclear when it will be passed.
"We feel that these new guidelines are a good thing because they could improve the welfare of animals in zoos and help standardize the conduct at zoos," Sun said. "We hope that in the future we will be able to have an actual animal welfare law that helps guarantee the basic needs of animals in zoos and elsewhere."