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Taking wildlife off the menu

Jonathan Watts

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As some rare animal species approach extinction, conservation groups in southern China are working to change the region’s traditional appetite for exotic fauna. Jonathan Watts reports.

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Stewed turtle cures cancer, crocodile meat relieves asthma, pangolin scales regulate menstruation and scorpion venom helps stroke victims.

Such is the traditional wisdom in Guangdong province, where animal markets teem with snakes, scorpions, salamander and dozens of different species of birds and turtles, some of which are endangered and all of which are fated to end their lives in restaurants, pharmacies or pet cages.

Eating rare wildlife is normal in southern China, but a growing group of student activists is trying to do something considered far stranger: they are trying to save them.

The nascent NGO conservation movement is stepping in where the authorities have had limited success by monitoring markets and restaurants, reporting sales of endangered species and trying to change the consumer culture. Among the youngest of several small groups is the Asian Turtle Rehabilitation Project, established earlier this year to save the reptiles from the soup pot. 

The founding members say they are trying to cross the divide between the culture in which they were raised and the global conservation concerns they have been exposed to via the internet and schooling.

They are surrounded by people who think it’s a wasted effort. “They disapprove of this activity. They think turtles are small animals only good for eating -- so why bother saving them?” says Luo Xinmei, a local student. “Almost no one in Guangzhou realises this is a centre of the illegal wildlife trade.”

They are up against tradition and economic growth. Guangdong is the richest and most powerful province in southern China, where the appetite for exotic animals and plants is seen as extreme even in most other regions of China.

The main reason is Chinese traditional medicine, which lists curative qualities in many exotic animals. It is believed that the wilder the animal or plant, the better the effects. A popular saying has it that people here will eat anything with four legs except a chair, anything that flies except a plane and anything in the water except a boat.

Demand dropped briefly after 2003, when the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) crisis was blamed on pathogens spread by civet cats and other wild animals. But it has surged back since as rising incomes allow more consumers to indulge in foods that were once considered delicacies for the very rich. A survey by the conservation group Traffic last year found that almost half of city dwellers had eaten wild animals in the previous 12 months.

The impact has been devastating. While international attention tends to focus on big mammals such as the Sumatran tiger and the giant panda, many reptiles have quietly been pushed to the brink of extinction, including the three-stripe box turtle, the Roti Island snake-neck turtle and the Malaysian giant turtle. Turtles are among the most threatened because they breed slowly and their meat is considered good for longevity.

Raising awareness takes a number of forms. The group has secretly taken images of a turtle being butchered and posted them online. But its main job is monitoring. On a recent visit to the city’s Qingping and Huadiwan markets, Wen Zhenyu identified big-headed turtles, pig-nosed turtles, Chinese three-striped box turtle and elongated tortoises among the many species that are meant to be protected by international treaty.

While China is not the only culprit in the consumption of wild animals, it is the biggest.  And its impact is being felt across the region. In February, ­Vietnamese authorities seized a record haul of ­illegally harvested wildlife products, including two tons of tiger bones, bear paws and gall bladders. ­Reports the same month from Laos revealed the ongoing poaching of tiger. The biggest market for these products is China, where a tiger’s bones and penis can fetch US$70,000.

The authorities launch occasional raids on restaurants and dealers.  In April, Guangzhou wildlife protection officials intercepted a cargo of smuggled golden pheasant, sand badger, leopard cat and other animals.

The Guardian found two food outlets in the Conghua hot spring resort outside Guangzhou openly breaking the law by serving pangolin and other protected animals. One restaurant charges 1,000 yuan (about US$150) per kilogramme of pangolin meat. “You need to pay in advance and then we will find one for you,” said an employee. “We can cook it in a hotpot or braise it in soy sauce.” Nearby, another restaurant illegally offers cobra. “It is 100 yuan per half-kilo,” said a waiter. “We get it from the wild.” 

Conservationists believe police alone cannot solve the problem. “We need to build consumer awareness so people move away from unsustainable consumption towards a feeling of stewardship,” said James Compton, the Asia-Pacific coordinator of Traffic.

Activists from another group, Green Eyes, recently scored a major victory by protesting outside a Guangzhou restaurant where a nurse shark was held in a small tank in which it could barely move. With banners reading “No consuming, no killing” in English and Chinese, the campaigners received widespread coverage from local news channels. They eventually secured the release of the shark.

Zheng Yuanying, of Green Eyes, said the focus was not on the owners but on the consumers. “We avoid conflict. We just try to make suggestions. But some people think we care about animals too much.”

For many species, it may be too late. The Wildlife Conservation Society reports a sharp decline in the diversity of freshwater turtles, snakes and frogs in the wild, though many species, including crocodiles, are being bred successfully in captivity.

At Qingping market, a veteran snake seller says the market sells fewer species than before because many animals are extinct and the authorities are conducting stricter checks. But he admits to selling some protected species under the table. “Even if people know an animal is endangered, they will eat it if they have a disease that cannot be cured with other types of medicine.”

One notorious market in Nansha has been closed, but conservationists fear the wild animal business is simply being pushed underground.

At 4am in a dark suburb of Taiping, about an hour’s drive from downtown Guangzhou, the Guardian found exotic-animal traders covertly plying their wares out of sight of the authorities and conservationists. The three long rows of sheds resembled a cramped and dirty zoo filled with wire cages: long and tall for the herons, flat and low for the civet cats. Ostriches have room to move their necks, but not their bodies. There are similar markets throughout southern China.

The activists say the key is changing attitudes. “We try to educate people that turtles are not only pets and not only food; they are also a friend of ­humans,” Wen Zhenyu says.

Copyright Guardian News and Media Limited, 2009

Homepage photo by VLKR


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If everyone who treats wild animals as a source of food are able to look at these animals face-to-face, then perhaps they will understand the significance of their death. Some people put it this way. "These animals are not just food, they are living things. Just like us, they are living things with a complete set of five senses and the ability to communicate." (Translated by Jerry Stewart)



Opposing wild animals trade

In China some people refer to wild animals as “exotic delicacies”. Those who enjoy eating them do so not just because they enjoy the taste or they want to satisfy their curiosity. Eating wild animals is also a way to show off. Because of this trend's growing popularity, many have already started to see it as a profitable business opportunity. This has led to more and more wild animals being killed for consumption purposes. Ultimately, this will speep up many wild animals extinction process.(Translated by Vanessa Liberson)

文化传统 对 全球保护主义观念

动物保护组织在广东与有关机构一起开展的限制野生动物的消费行动非常好。由于野生动物可以作为中药(TCM,Traditional Chinese Medicine),食用野生动物不仅仅是一种潮流。限制对野生动物的消费也不仅仅是转变消费文化和态度。它涉及到改变几百年来形成的文化传统。我们必须找到一种办法来限制对野生动物的消费,而又不让消费者认为这是对他们获取基本药用材料的限制。为了实现这个目标,还有很多的宣传工作要做。消费者需要在文化传统与全球保护主义观念之间达成一种妥协。

cultural practices vs. global conservation concerns

Conservation groups are doing a great job working alongside authorities to help limit wildlife consumption in Guangdong. Because of its connections to TCM , eating wild animals is not simply a trend. Limiting wildlife consumption is not just about changing consumer culture and attitudes. It is also about changing a deeply rooted cultural practice that has been around for hundreds of years. We must find a way to limit wildlife consumption that is not perceived by consumers as trying to prevent them from accessing essential curative ingredients. In order to achieve this, a great deal of campaigning is needed. Consumers must learn how to compromise tradition with global conservation concerns.



Nature reserves

Today is World Environment Day. “Common Concern”, a news program on CCTV, talked about the wildlife in nature reserve in Zhalong, Heilongjiang province. This report showed that although the Japanese Crane is under better protection, other birds are still living in poor conditions. Poisons, traps, nets and even restaurants selling wildlife dishes are all inside the nature reserve. Such a situation causes distress.



One question

It seems that eating wild animals is very popular among southwestern areas, especially in Guangzhou. Why? Is there a geographic reason, or other factors?

This comment is translated by Emily Li Yajing.



An Unimaginable Culture

It is true that most Chinese people like to eat wild animals. When I was in my hometown (Heilongjiang), people used to give my parents pheasants, Siberian roe deer and boars as presents. What a sin! Perhaps people like to experience new things but without considering the difficult living conditions of these animals. I think most people try wildlife dishes only occasionally. However, as a Chinese person, I still cannot understand why the Cantonese are fond of eating wild animals. -Translated by Peter Bi-






The possible relationship between eating wildlife and Chinese traditional culture and medicine

It is said that people in South China, that Cantonese people in particular, like eating rare wildlife. However, according to my observation, there are indeed many people who like eating rare wildlife -- it is not only the Cantonese who have this kind of hobby. An important factor has led to the long tradition of eating wild animals – due to ancient tales and Chinese traditional medicine, the unique functions of eating wild animals has been widely recognized by Chinese people. One group of wild animal-eating enthusiasts are those who have illnesses, especially serious ones. According to Chinese medical prescriptions, wild plants and animals are unique in curing patients. Another group of wild animal-eating fans are rich people. They are so rich that they can buy anything easily, particularly food. Also, because they are rich, ordinary food no longer appeals to them, as eating it does not allow them to show off their wealth. Speaking of rich people, Guangdong is no longer the richest province in the mainland. However, as it is the first one to get rich, it is the pool of new goods, which still affects the trend in the market. When rich people, whether from the north, the coastal or overseas, go to Guangdong, they will try out new things. This is also why there are so many high and middle-class hotels and various kinds of places of entertainment there. If you don’t believe this, you can just walk around the towns in Dongguan. Why are there so many rich people with different accents? What are they looking for? This leads to yet another group of wild animal-eating fans – people with particular needs. Their "lifestyle" requires them to consume specific nutrients to keep strong so that they can continue to live in ways which I won’t dwell on here. The last group of wild animal-eating fans are those beyond Guangdong or even the mainland. Wild animals are exported to other places to be consumed by people among whom Cantonese won't account for the majority. Author : AC (Translated by Garvey Yan)



Going back in time...

I think the critical angle to this whole debate is anchored in history; ancient Chinese recipes, cookbooks, the pharmacological canon and dietary texts have always been inclusive of rare animals and plants, praising them as nourishing the Yang or the Yin, strengthening a particular organ in one's body, or promising sexual health. It used be be that only a certain elite had access to these auxiliary elements of nutrition (bear paws, tiger penis, deer antlers, shark fins, rare turtles and armadillos, etc...), but with the flattening of modern society in China, these same ingredients have reached the masses. It will take a massive policy effort (in conjunction with really well-conceived educational tools and an engineered movement from below) to alter the menu again.
For the purpose of illustration, in 1981 (which is not too long ago if you think about it), I took photographs of dried monkeys, skinned deer, etc. in a market in Guangzhou. They can be found at



---吉林省白城市洮北区环保局 李女士诚挚发表

Carnivorous human beings won't stop harming the wild animals

It is the idea of "eating meat" of human beings that leads to the lust for eating wild animals. According to the authoritative book "China Health Report" written by Prof. Cambell, which is accredited and recommended by Chinese health units, meat is unhealthy to human beings while vegetarian diet is truly healthy from a nutrition perspective. I hope we will spread this information. With more vegetarians, people will lead more healthier lives and embrace more lovely souls. The dear wild animals can then live harmoniously with us, without their lives being threatened. Besides, rearing of animals causes 18% of the total GHGs. If we obtain nutritions directly from plants, it will be a great change in terms of alleviating climate change. (By Mrs. Li, Environmental Protection Bureau, Taobei District, Baicheng City, Jilin Province)

-Translated by Guo Chen.

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