China's mink breeders cash in after coronavirus forces Europe culls

Chinese authorities have stepped up checks and offered free virus tests at bigger breeding centres

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As millions of mink are culled in Europe because of fears they could spread the coronavirus, struggling Chinese suppliers are defying calls to ban their business and taking advantage of a surge in global prices for the prized fur.

Chinese mink farmers, hit by a ban on wildlife trade early in the pandemic, are breeding the animals again, while traders have increased prices by as much as a third as supplies tighten.

Authorities in Denmark, the world's biggest exporter of mink fur, began culling an estimated 15 to 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 human beings.

Mass mink culling in Denmark over Covid-19 mutation

Mass mink culling in Denmark over Covid-19 mutation

Before the culls, China was the second-biggest producer of mink.

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 about 8,000 and hold about five million animals.

In the village of Shangcun, about 180 kilometres south of Beijing, fur traders said their business was safe and would thrive as producers sought replacement pelts for coats that cost at least $10,000.

"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.

Animal welfare groups around the world called for a ban on fur farming and said the pandemic proved intensive captive breeding was not only cruel but 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 coronavirus is widely believed to have originated," said Jason Baker, senior vice president at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

"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 to 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. He is also co-author of a paper on Covid-19 transmission in mink.

Authorities stepped up checks and offered free coronavirus tests at some bigger breeding centres. Beijing is not expected 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 struggled in recent years because of declining overseas demand are already benefiting from increasing prices.

"It felt great," said Wang He, a trader and breeder Shangcun.

His earnings increased by 30 to 50 per cent when the price of mink fur jumped after Denmark ordered its cull.

Chinese demand remains 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 foxes and raccoons would be classified as "special livestock" rather than wildlife and would be exempt from the ban.

There are now signs the market is responding to the culls in Denmark, a country that accounted for about 40 per cent of worldwide production.

Many Chinese farmers were considering abandoning the business altogether, said Zhao Yangang, a 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, which is known to be a source of infectious diseases such as rabies and distemper.

Most larger breeding centres are subject to rigorous vaccination and hygiene regimes.

Mr Wang said that after the Danish cull was announced, China began administering free Covid-19 tests for captive mink.

They came to my farm in Dalian and tested minks from five spots in the farm

"They came to my farm in Dalian and tested mink from five spots in the farm," he said.

But a wider policy is not expected because fur farming has been a relatively cheap way for local governments to alleviate poverty in rural communities and rust belt regions and it provides earning opportunities for laid-off industrial workers.

But experts say the health risks posed by mink cannot be separated from the conditions in which animals are kept.

"Mink are susceptible but we should not forget the conditions they are housed in," said Mr Balloux.

"There are very large populations in cages, living on top of one another, and the numbers are insane."