Nothing Is Safe from the Rich and Hungry in China
GUANGZHOU, China — In southern China, it doesn't matter if an animal is an endangered species. As long as it walks, wriggles, or jumps, it's good enough for the pot.
To prove the point, visit a wild animal market in the thriving city of Guangzhou.
"You want to buy a porcupine?" a worker asked as he looked up from a half-disemboweled civet cat, which some scientists say is the source of the deadly SARS virus that wreaked havoc around the world last year, killing more than 800 people.
Squatting just next to him, a few workers scrub the white carcass of a freshly plucked porcupine, a protected species under the U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
Nearby, half a dozen other people sit around mounds of water snakes, peeling their skin off and revealing a pink stretch of flesh. Water snake meat is relatively cheap and popular, but conservationists have warned the trade is endangering the reptile, once abundant in the wild.
In this dark, foul-smelling market in Guangzhou, traders have just about anything to offer from birds and waterfowl, domestic dogs and cats, to the exotic flying squirrels and leopard cats.
What cannot be supplied legally from farms is hunted from the wild or imported as well as smuggled from overseas.
It's the sort of unbridled trade that led to CITES being created decades ago, and signatories to the convention, including China, gathering recently in Bangkok for a 12-day summit.
Chinese officials cracked down on the trade of wild game and protected species after SARS last year. But instead of destroying the age-old industry, the government has driven it underground.
Nothing Is Safe
Traders are a lot savvier these days. In the Guangzhou market, species that are endangered or deemed sensitive are hidden, and workers quickly remove cages with suspect inhabitants or throw sackcloths over them when strangers mill about.
And it is obvious that there is more than meets the eye.
"A catty of porcupine costs 20 yuan (US$2.40). An average porcupine would weigh between 10 and 20 catties," said one worker, pointing to the carcass of the CITES-listed animal. "How much do you want?"
A catty is a widely used Chinese unit of weight and is equivalent to about 1.4 pounds.
Conservationists say CITES-protected species are readily available in China, where consumers are so hungry for things exotic that many new species have become endangered and concern groups find they cannot give protection quickly enough.
Gail Cochrane of Animals Asia Foundation said the Malaysian box terrapin, which was abundant in the wild just 10 years ago, had to be added to CITES's Appendix II two years ago, which means trade in the animal is strictly controlled.
"Within a very short time, or about five to 10 years, these turtles have become very rare and have needed to be CITES-listed. Just in the last two years, 12 to 13 species have had to be CITES-listed because of China's food trade," Cochrane said.
Water snakes were also in danger.
"They are not CITES-listed now, but they are fast disappearing because of overhunting. Due to domestic consumption, they are becoming rare and are being imported from Southeast Asia. If we don't watch out, they will get listed," Cochrane said.
But so long as customers can pay, markets and wild game restaurants in China will continue to be stocked with endangered species, either by local hunters or smugglers.
Leopard cats, once abundant in China, are now smuggled from Vietnam and Burma. Porcupines and pangolins are supplied from Vietnam and Thailand, Cochrane said. All three are CITES-listed.
These animals were readily available for decades in restaurants in southern China, but many of them are now more discreet after officials cracked down on the trade of endangered species in the aftermath of the SARS epidemic.
While top Chinese officials have condemned the eating of wild game as barbaric, it has done little to dent a habit that has lasted for as long as the Chinese race. Many Chinese believe wild game improves health and keeps them warm in winter.
In the rural town of Chonghua, about two hours' drive from Guangzhou, the wily owner of a tiny wild game restaurant charges 360 yuan for a catty of the endangered pangolin.
"We have everything you want," the restaurateur said. "But you will have to buy a whole pangolin if you want to see it (before it is butchered). That would be over 20 catties. Hey, this thing is CITES-listed. If I get caught with it, it will cost me over 100,000 yuan (in fines)."
While traders in the Guangzhou wild animal market also prefer to sell endangered species to trusted customers, trade and processing of water snakes are openly conducted.