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News 12 Feb 07
Illegal wildlife trade in China undiminished by bans, health threats
by Stephanie Wong
SHENZHEN, China (AFP) - Amid the bustling shopping malls and electronics outlets of the southern Chinese boomtown of Shenzhen is a crowded food market believed by locals to sell the freshest produce in town.
Feathers fly among cages of live poultry and baskets of frogs maintain a croaking din, while goats, snakes and rabbits jostle for space in cramped stalls next to seafood sellers offering everything from crabs and fish to turtles displayed in buckets of water.
In a quiet corner of the damp and slippery market, however, some unusual animals are on sale. Wild pigs and a group of fat cats lay lazily in their cages, apparently unconcerned by the stall owners who hover idly nearby reading newspapers.
Deeper inside the market, the wildlife on offer becomes even more unusual: Chinese muntjacs, small deer with dark red-brown fur popular in claypot stews, huddle in dark corners.
Furthest from the stream of shoppers, and available only to those in the know, are the creatures that shouldn't be here at all, animals taken from the wild in such numbers they now face extinction and their consumption is banned.
But the bans appear to have had little impact.
Here in southern China, where generations-old gastronomic traditions mean exotic wildlife are still regarded as culinary delicacies, those who want to throw an endangered beast in the pot need only the money to pay for it as an animal's rarity simply makes it more expensive. And that in turn makes their sale in markets like Shenzhen's all the more lucrative.
"Some of them are used for medicinal purposes while some people believe they are good for their health," said Timothy Lam, senior programme officer at the East Asian arm of TRAFFIC, the international monitor of the sale of endangered species.
"Sometimes they believe the more difficult they are to get, the better they are for you," Lam added.
A 2006 survey by the China Wildlife Conservation Association (CWCA) and WildAid found 42 percent of the restaurants and 60 percent of the wholesale markets polled in 16 Chinese cities -- but especially those in southern Guangdong province -- served dishes featuring the meat of wild animals.
The report also showed 80 types of wildlife species were sold throughout the country, worryingly up on the 53 varieties found in a 1999 survey.
Among the protected animals on sale at Shenzhen's market are civet cats, the local species of mongoose which is believed to have sparked the 2003 worldwide outbreak of the deadly pneumonia-like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome ( SARS).
SARS originated in southern China and spread globally to infect more than 8,000 people and kill more than 800, including 349 in China.
Breeding and selling the animals was banned to prevent the further spread of SARS. But that has not deterred connoisseurs of civet stew. "There are still people who eat them. You can get that in restaurants," said one seller who would not give his name.
He used to sell farmed civets, he said, until the ban was introduced. Since then he has been buying from suppliers who catch them wild in rural mountains in Guangxi, Jiangxi and Fujian provinces.
Because of their popularity, the civet cats are also smuggled from other parts of the world.
Last year, Chinese authorities said the illegal trade in wild animals and plants took third place on the list of illicit activities after drug smuggling and arms dealing. The trade has been valued at more than 10 billion dollars annually.
At Shenzhen's wet market, more unidentifiable furry animals were seen locked in cages but their sellers either refused to say what they were or simply ignored a visitor's questions.
"They are too expensive," one seller said, waving a dismissive hand and gesturing the visitor to leave. Others stare with suspicion when asked whether they stock banned animals.
A chicken seller said stall owners were edgy as only a few days earlier local police had clamped down on a stall offering pangolins. Pangolins, a type of scaly anteater, are rare and trade in them is prohibited under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
"Some police officers had a look around here a few days ago; they found pangolins were being sold which was not allowed," Sister Ho, as she called herself, whispered, adding: "Some are still selling them under the counter."
The ban has not deterred diners from seeking wild game in restaurants. One waitress, surnamed Liang, said her restaurant served civets and pangolins on request; they just needed some notice. "When you come, give us a call and we can get you that in a day," she said.
She added, however, that demand for wild animals had fallen since the SARS outbreak. The CWCA/WildAid study found that nearly 87 percent of respondents had reduced or stopped eating wild animals knowing they could be unsafe.
The civet cat seller, too, said demand had been sluggish for years. "I used to sell a lot more, especially before SARS," he said. "Not that I'm afraid of being caught, no one likes to eat them anymore."
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