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South China’s taste for wildlife

Consuming endangered wildlife is illegal in China, but it continues on a large scale in the country’s south. Walter Parham reports on a habit that locals just cannot kick – even after the SARS crisis.
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The destruction of south China’s wildlife habitats started about 1,000 years ago, and still continues today. This led to many animal extinctions and severe reductions in wildlife populations, and has been compounded by the use of wildlife for food and for ingredients in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

One might imagine that the pressure on wildlife would have decreased as levels of education and urban incomes have risen in the region. But the greatest reduction in wildlife consumption was actually in 2003, and came as a result of public fears about the risks of catching Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) from wild animals. In late 2004, the demand for civet cats decreased so much due to the fear of SARS that 141 farms released 4,000 of the animals into the wild.

Bird flu later added to this concern.

Many Chinese people believe that eating wildlife is a bad habit, and some will even say it is barbaric, but the practice has persisted in China for around 2,000 years. A 2003 poll taken in Guangdong province found that half of the population had eaten wildlife, snake being named as the favourite of 45% of those surveyed.


A caged masked palm civet for sale in a Guangzhou wild-animal food market in 2006

(Photo courtesy of Animals Asia Foundation, Hong Kong)

With increased affluence in large south China cities such as Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou, greater numbers of well-educated urban men have been reported as travelling to other cities on the Chinese mainland to enjoy feasts of endangered and protected wildlife species – in order to flaunt their wealth. Feast menus typically include cobras and other poisonous snakes, pangolins (a small, scaly animal) and civet cats.

The figures are staggering. Twenty tonnes of snakes and as many as 20,000 birds were eaten every day in Guangdong restaurants in 2001, reported the South China Morning Post. One Guangzhou restaurant, “Chock Full O’Snakes”, served 600 to 700 kilograms of snakes every day throughout January 2001 – the first month of the Year of the Snake. Some wildlife restaurants in Guangzhou can seat as many as 1,000 people.

 

In 2001, China announced fines of 1,000 to 10,000 yuan for anyone caught eating protected wildlife. But in 2004 Xinhua news agency reported the State Forestry Administration as saying that the cobra population has fallen 90% in the previous decade, while numbers of the common rat snake had dropped 75%. Intense snake hunting in some grain-producing areas of south China has been associated with a rise in local rat populations, which in turn has led to significant loss of grain eaten by the rats.

Wildlife markets obtain their animals from wild-animal farms or from hunters who scour the countryside; and the trade often provides a substantial income to hunters and farmers alike. The South China Morning Post reported that in 2004, civet-cat meat cost around US$16 to US$20 per kilogram in restaurants. Some examples of the wildlife eaten or used as ingredients in TCM include: poisonous snakes (especially cobras), song birds, owls, bear parts, rats, pangolins, elephant “nose”, boas, monitor lizards, tiger parts, crocodiles, monkeys, swans, peacocks, pheasants, civet cats, foxes, emus, Sika deer, leopard cats, mice, centipedes, bats, salamanders, worms, scorpions, beetles and cocoons. Domesticated cats and dogs are another common food source.

 

Wildlife farming is viewed by researchers at the Animal Institute at the China Academy of Sciences as a way to protect wild animals. They believe that farm-raised animals not only cost less than those that have been poached, but also that they pose less of a health risk. However, they do note that few people cultivate wild animals for its general benefit to society, or as a form of restocking dwindling wildlife populations. Other researchers, at north China’s Jilin Agricultural University, say that any policies focused on raising wild animals should make the protection of wild animals a priority – above and beyond their commercial value.

 

Wildlife, in its natural setting, benefits society in a variety of ways. For instance, some species carry seeds to degraded land sites and help land restoration. A number of snake species prey on agricultural pests – like rats in grain producing areas – and so help ensure adequate food production. Many species of birds and amphibians also consume mosquitoes, flies and other disease-carrying vectors, thus reducing the risk of human infection. Raising concentrations of wild animals on food farms only has very local benefits; the loss of wildlife from natural habitats will harm society in a great number of ways.

 

The scarcity of wildlife in Guangdong province, stemming from the high demand for wild animals for food, has meant increasing imports of wildlife from other southern provinces, as well as other Asian countries such as Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, India and Vietnam and even some African countries. These imports increase the pressure on wildlife in these locations.

Smuggling has also become commonplace in nearby Hong Kong, due to the high market value of many endangered or protected wildlife species in mainland China. A look at some Hong Kong police reports highlights the magnitude of the problem: in 2001, the Hong Kong authorities uncovered a shipment of 2.7 tonnes of pangolin scales, a yield that would require the scales of 5,000 to 6,000 pangolins. The next year, crates containing 600 cobras were smuggled into Hong Kong from Malaysia, but were intercepted by the police by a dangerous, high-speed boat chase. And in 2005, a shipment of 1,800 skinned and vacuum-packed pangolins was discovered. The list goes on, and these incidents only represent the tip of the iceberg of the wildlife smuggling trade.

 

The 2003 SARS outbreak caused widespread concern in China about the possible hazards of eating wild animals. The link between SARS and the handling and eating of certain wildlife was proposed by medical researchers, and the Chinese government closed or relocated a number of wildlife markets, as well as closing many wildlife restaurants. At the height of the outbreak, the Guangdong government banned the breeding, consumption and trading of wildlife. But sales resumed shortly after the SARS crisis had passed. Renewed efforts by the Guangdong health authorities in 2007 to confiscate civet cats led to a haul of 15 civet cats and 22 kilograms of civet-cat cutlets. Health authorities in the Guangdong city of Foshan recently banned the eating of field mice, after vendors were found to have killed the mice with poison before selling them to restaurants.

 

The China Wildlife Conservation Association, in cooperation with WildAid, conducted a survey in December 2005 and January 2006. The findings were released on April 18 2006, and showed that:

 

* wild animals were increasingly farmed commercially;

* restaurants that serve wildlife had decreased by 6.6%, but the number of grocery stores selling wild animals had increased by 22.8%;

* the concern over SARS and bird flu was the foremost reason for the drop in animal consumption since 2003;

* around 63% of those people surveyed believed that eating wild animals from illegal sources was not safe;

* of the Guangzhou-based respondents, 70% thought eating wildlife was a potential health risk; and

* of all the respondents, 74% knew that eating wild animals was against Chinese law

 

The survey authors said that China needs to reinforce its laws on the elimination of poaching, smuggling and the illegal wildlife trade. An important element of the survey was to identify why people chose to eat wild animals in the first place. These reasons included: health and nutrition (32.4 %); curiosity (31.3 %); taste (27.3 %); and social status (9.2 %). But around 72% of those surveyed said they had not eaten wild animals during the past year. An earlier survey, in 1999, showed that about 40% of those surveyed did not eat wildlife, a proportion which stands at 51.1% today. Overall, the population of south China consumes wildlife to a far greater extent than elsewhere in China.

 

Although recent evidence suggests that wildlife consumption has slowed, there is also reason to believe that smuggling continues. If something on the scale of a SARS outbreak does not resurface, will the public become increasingly complacent about eating wild animals again? And will environmental education alter people’s eating habits and reduce wildlife consumption? We can only hope, but I am not so certain.

 

Just prior to the SARS outbreak, I had a conversation with several Chinese ecologists on the subject. Even though these individuals fully understood the damage that was occurring to south China’s wildlife, they told me that when an important, visiting scientist came to dinner, they still would sometimes serve endangered animals to show their high regard for the visitor. Can environmental education and law enforcement make changes to the 2,000 year-old custom of wildlife consumption – in time to avoid further wildlife extinctions? Again, we can always hope.

 

Walter Parham, Ph.D. (University of Illinois in geology/clay mineralogy) has conducted research part-time in China and Hong Kong for around 40 years. His affiliations include among others the Federation of American Scientistsdirector of China Tropical Lands Research, the University of Hong Kong’s Kadoorie Agricultural Research Centre, and the South China Agricultural University in Guangzhou.   

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

还有什么不吃?

同样作为中国人我对食用野生动物的那些广州人实在无法理解。而最令我感到难以置信的是他们竟然也把猫狗这样的都市小动物也端上餐桌。7月7日在上海郊区有一辆卡车被爱猫人士拦下。里面有800多只猫被残忍地装在很多小箱子内,每箱里有二十多只。其中有些已经死亡大多数濒临死亡。据说每天都会有这样的卡车把猫运到广州做成一道叫“龙虎斗”的菜(猫与蛇一起烹煮)其中大部分是猫贩子捉来的流浪猫,甚至也有被拐骗的溜出来玩的家猫。他们捉猫的手法极其残忍,包括使用能将猫爪的肉垫刺穿的小型捕兽夹。
国内的媒体虽然一直呼吁大家要保护野生动物,但我觉得他们实际给人的感觉是仅仅大熊猫和中华鲟这样的濒危动物是值得保护的。上海每次救了受伤的中华鲟就大肆报道——动用了多少多少人,为它组成专家会诊,还要后续一路跟踪报道直到他被放归海洋。但这次800只猫事件的报道却极少。我是77840的救助义工(77840是我们对这次猫事件的称呼)为此感到非常失望。
我认为舆论导向首先应该从根本上改变人们对动物的观念,把“保护野生动物”上升到“爱护小动物”,要让人们看到动物后的第一想法是他们真可爱而不是他们的肉肯定很鲜美。然后要尽快督促政府出台相应的禁止虐待动物法或小动物保护条例。中国需要救助的人的确也很多,但这不能成为我们漠视动物权利的借口,救助人和救助动物并不矛盾。如果任凭事态发展,等到野生动物都吃光了,那些喜好野生动物的广州人要吃什么?人吗?
Navarch Shanghai

What else to eat?

Being a Chinese, I simply couldn't understand those GuangDong people who eat wild animals. The most incredible thing is they even put the kittens and puppies on the table. On July 7th, a truck was stopped by cat-lovers at Shanghai suburbans. 800 cats were cruelly killed and put into small cases, in every case there were twenty somewhere bodies. Some died, some dying. It's said that trucks like this carry cats to Guangzhou everyday, make them into a dish call "dragons and tigers fight" (cooking cats and snakes together), most of the cats are street cats caught by cat mongers, and some of them are pet cats that went out to play. Their techniques are barbarous, including nips that penetrate cat paws.

Although Chinese media always call on protecting wild animals, I still feel they only promote threatened animals such as Giant pandas and Chinese sturgeons. Every time Shanghai reports hugely on saving an injured Chinese sturgeon - from how many experts form the consultation, and follows up to the release of cured animal into the sea. However reports on the issue of these 800 cats were few.

As a 77840 rescue volunteer (77840 is how we call this cat issue), I feel so disappointed by this altitude. I believe that first of all, the media should change the people's view on animals thoroughly, that elevate the "protect the animals" to "love the animals", and change their first impression from "how delicious they are" to "how cute they are". Follow that, they should push the goverment to bring up corresponding laws or rules to ban the maltreat of small animals.

I admit that there are lots of people waiting to be rescued in this country, however, that couldn't be an excuse for us to ignore the rights of the animals - it is not contradictory to rescue both of them. If we just let it be like this, what else to eat after all the wild animals are eaten? Humans?

Navarch Shanghai

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

不同意

我也同意要尊重小动物的尊严。但不代表要像对待大熊猫一样去对待小猫。无论何时,当前可用的资源都是是有限的,所以才有事情的轻急缓重。连中华鲟这样众所周知的濒危物种都不能得到媒体的关注,那么凭什么要媒体去对司空见惯的小猫投入关注?
正如你们爱猫人士有自己的主张和立场,连许多宠物猫的伙食水平都达不到的贫穷人士也有他们自己的立场。他们的许多要求和呼声都被严格地压制下来,他们也缺少渠道去表达自己的意愿。爱猫一族已经拥有比他们更加优越的条件,至少你们是社会上生活无忧的一群,也能够很顺利地建立自己的组织。所以,请不要去责备社会不理解你们,而是你们已经有很好的优势了。社会的扶持和关注要投放到更加迫切的地方去。
广州对吃的要求是很高,但是大部分的广州人都是在平常的食料上下功夫而已。而且有基本科学素养的人也不会相信野生动物的所谓滋补作用。无疑,广州有相当一部分人是很喜欢吃野生动物,但这不是普遍的风俗,这种对广州人的偏见是被错误放大的符号。普通的广州人并没有吃野生动物的特殊爱好。而且,以你打探过的野生动物价格行情来看,你觉得广州有多少人吃得起?那部分人能够代表多少广州人?在大嚼野生动物的行列里面,一样没有地域界限。所以,不要把残害野生动物的标签胡乱就贴到广州身上。

Disagree

I’m also agree to respect the dignity of little animal. However, doesn’t mean that you treat a kitten as how you treat a panda. Whenever, those usable resources at present are limited, hence, the urgency of issue will be taken place. Chinese sturgeon, such a popular endangered species can’t even gain an exclusive attention from media, whereby shall the media to put exclusive attention into the commonly seen kitten? Be just like those cat lover who has their own assertion and point of view. Their request and urge has strictly been suppressed, they are also lack of channel to express their aspiration.Cat’s lover has been equipped with superior prerequisite compare with others; at least, you don’t have such worried to live in this society, being able to form your own organization without obstacle. Hence, please don’t blame the society for being not understanding, as you already stand a very good position. Support and attention given by the society should target on those sector which is urgently required. Guangzhao has highly demand on food; however, most of the communities in Guangzhao only put efforts in their usual foodstuffs. Moreover, those community who has science knowledge wouldn’t believe in the nutritional value contribute by wildlife. No doubt, there are certain groups of community in Guangzhao like to consume wildlife; however, it’s not a general practice, it is a mistake to execrate the prejudice of the community in Guangzhao. In general, community in Guangzhao does not have a special affinity to consume wildlife. Moreover, based on your research concerning the price check of wildlife, do you think that they are affordable? It such a small group, how can they represent the community in Guangzhao? There is no boarder line in terms of consuming wildlife. As such, don’t ever blame that community in Guangzhao are those who cruelly kill wildlife.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

老话题了,畸形消费心理

吃野生动物可以让某些有钱人彰显自己的富有,让有权人彰显自己的威严。多么可笑啊!就像北京人是个人就得买个车,不然就很没面子,即使堵车到单位要一个多小时而其实走路只要二十分钟。

Old topic, unhealthy consumption

Eating wild animals could make the rich show their wealth and give those in power a chance to show their influence and affluent lifestyle.

How silly it is! It is just like everyone in Beijing buying cars, otherwise it would be shameful, even it will take more than one hour to get there when it is just a twenty-minute walk.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

完全同意

不得不说,吃野生动物是一种变态心理,为了显示自己有钱没处花,大把大把地挥洒钞票。素质!还是素质问题使之涌现出一大群的爆发户!_

Absolutely agree

Consuming wildlife is kind of psychopathic attitude that we have to kick. And to demonstrate one's riches... What about inner quality! It is concerns about inner quality that will cause the emerging of something new and young!

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

紫红的葡萄

太令人发指了!
太没有人性了!
我们和动物都生活在同一片蓝天下,
共同主宰着地球,
何必要自相残杀呢?
——一个四年级的小女孩的话

outcry from a schoolgirl

So outrageous! So inhuman! We live under the same heaven as the wildlife animals. Why do they slaughter and feast on them like that? -commented by a fourth-grade elementary schoolgirl