SHANGCUN/SHANGHAI, China (Reuters) - As millions of mink are culled in Europe amid fears they could spread the novel coronavirus, struggling Chinese suppliers are defying calls for their business to be banned and taking advantage of a surge in global prices for the prized fur.
Chinese mink farmers, rattled by a ban on wildlife trade early in the pandemic, are now resuming breeding of the slinky mammals, while traders have boosted prices by as much as a third as supplies tighten.
Authorities in Denmark, the world’s biggest mink exporter, began slaughtering an estimated 15-17 million animals in early November after some tested positive for a mutated form of the coronavirus, raising concerns that vaccine-resistant strains could recirculate in humans.
Before the culls, China was the second biggest producer of mink fur behind Denmark.
Beijing has shown a zero-tolerance approach to new infection risks, tracking imported frozen meat and seafood and locking down communities whenever new transmissions occur. But it has taken little action against its mink farms, which researchers say number around 8,000 and hold about 5 million animals.
In the village of Shangcun around 180km (110 miles) south of Beijing, fur traders said their business was safe and would thrive as producers sought replacement pelts for coats costing $10,000 or more each.
“I don’t worry about getting the virus from mink fur because I’m sure the Chinese government will do all the necessary checks,” said Wang Zhanhui, a shop owner, running his hand over a strip of glossy black fur.
Animal welfare groups around the world have urged a ban on fur farming, saying the COVID-19 pandemic proves intensive captive breeding is not only cruel but also hazardous to human health.
“When it comes to public health risks, these farms and markets are much like the live animal market in Wuhan where the novel coronavirus is widely believed to have originated,” said Jason Baker, Senior Vice President at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
“Filthy fur farms are packed with sick, stressed, and injured animals and are breeding grounds for disease.”
Studies also suggest mink are particularly prone to coronavirus infection and could transmit the virus back into humans.
“If the objective is to reduce transmission, then yes, having these mink farms is a big risk because it makes it much more difficult to manage the epidemic and creates such big reservoirs of susceptible hosts,” said Francois Balloux, a geneticist with University College London and co-author of a recent paper on COVID-19 transmission in minks.
But while authorities have stepped up checks and offered free coronavirus tests at some bigger breeding facilities, Beijing is seen unlikely to crack down on an industry that earns an estimated $50 billion per year in China alone.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs did not respond to requests for comment.
Chinese mink suppliers and traders who had been struggling in recent years due to declining overseas demand are already benefiting from rising prices.
“It felt great,” said Wang He, a Shangcun trader and breeder, whose earnings increased 30-50% when the price of mink fur jumped after Denmark ordered the cull.
Chinese demand has remained strong, with rising wealth and little in the way of animal rights activism.
But the coronavirus outbreak triggered a blanket ban on all wildlife trading in China, forcing some smaller breeders out of business and causing “panic”, according to an industry association.
In April, the government said mink, arctic fox and racoon would be classified as “special livestock” rather than wildlife, and would therefore be exempt from the ban.
There are now signs the market is responding to the culls in Denmark, which was responsible for about 40% of worldwide output.
Many Chinese farmers were considering abandoning the business altogether, said Zhao Yangang, another mink trader.
“They were preparing to stop rearing but now the markets started to move like this they’ve started breeding again,” he said.
China is well-aware of the health risks of intensive mink farming, known to be a source of infectious diseases like rabies and distemper. Most larger breeding facilities are subject to rigorous vaccination and hygiene regimes.
Wang the fur trader and breeder, said after the Danish cull was announced, China began administering free COVID-19 tests for captive minks.
“They came to my farm in Dalian and tested minks from five spots in the farm,” he said.
But a wider crackdown is not expected as fur farming has been a relatively cheap way for local governments to alleviate poverty in rural communities and rustbelt regions such as Hebei, where it provides earning opportunities for laid-off industrial workers.
Still, experts say the health risks posed by minks cannot be separated from the conditions in which animals are kept.
“Minks are susceptible but we should not forget the conditions they are housed in,” said Balloux.
“There are very large populations in cages, living on top of one another, and the numbers are insane.”
Reporting by Yew Lun Tian and Martin Pollard in Shangcun, David Stanway in Shanghai; Additional reporting by Silvia Aloisi in Milan and the Beijing newsroom; Editing by Lincoln Feast.
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