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Biodiversity Threatened by China’s Taste for Exotic Meat

Mon, 01/07/2013 - 8:22am
Chinese Academy of Sciences

From bird legs to monkey brains, wild animals in the south of China, especially in Guangdong and adjacent provinces and regions, have gruesomely fallen prey, on the dining tables, to avid human beings.

According to Legal Daily, a Chinese-language newspaper, in Guangdong province alone more than 50 species of wildlife, including civet cats, foxes, raccoons and turtles, are on the menu. Many of the species, such as pangolins and many rare birds, are near extinction and should enjoy State protection.

After the outbreak of SARS in 2003, many people refused to eat exotic animals for fear of catching diseases, as scientists traced the virus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome to civet cats.

But the fear disappeared within several months. In fact, in recent years, the craving for wildlife has reared its head even higher. And where there is the demand, there is the killing. Poaching and the illicit trading of wildlife are lucrative activities in some regions, and they already pose grave threats to endangered species and thus to the balance of ecosystems.

A study by the Institute of Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences found that in 2010, species including the one-horned rhinoceros and the saiga antelope had died out in the Chinese mainland, and there were more than 300 species on the brink of extinction.

While there are many factors contributing to the decline of species, such as habit loss, deforestation, global warming and urbanization, illegal hunting plays a large role in the loss of biodiversity.

In November, 20 oriental white storks, which are listed under China's highest level of animal protection, and another 100 birds, including mallards, spot-billed ducks and grey herons were found dead at Beidagang Wetlands Nature Reserve in Tianjin, poisoned by poachers.

Not far away from the wetlands, swan meat sells for at least 600 yuan ($96) per dish in restaurants, and a live swan at the local market can fetch 3,000 yuan.

China Central Television recently broadcast images of poachers shooting monkeys in Zixi, Jiangxi province, and then banging them against the ground to see if they were still alive, because live animals can be sold for a higher price.

There have been major crackdowns on poaching and the illegal trade in wildlife. However, occasional raids cannot solve the issue, as the black market just plays hide and seek with the police. Although some restaurants are caught and fined, they soon reopen, because they are never short of loyal customers.

Yet it's hard to change people's beliefs and habits. In the south of China eating rare wildlife is normal, as different species are considered to have health benefits: eating pangolin is believed to prevent cancer; stewed pigeon with night owl is thought to relieve migraine; and wild turtle considered a cure for lumbago. Also eating bear paws, shark fins, and seal meat have become associated with wealth and status. So the rarer the species, the more desirable it is.

But as SARS shows, rather than being beneficial to health, eating wildlife can be dangerous. Research by the China Wildlife Conservation Association found that more than 100 diseases can be transmitted to humans by different species of monkeys, birds and snakes.

Local governments and police, undoubtedly, have a vital role to play in cracking down on poaching and monitoring the trade in wildlife. But the lasting solution lies in promoting greater awareness among consumers. Not only of the risks of consuming wild species, but also of the need for biodiversity.

Some non-governmental organizations and animal welfare activists have already stepped in to educate people about the dangers of eating wildlife, and the growing number of citizens' petitions and proposals trying to dissuade people consuming wild animals shows that progress is being made in changing people's attitudes toward wildlife consumption.

But at a time when the environment and biodiversity are under unprecedented pressure, consumers need to realize that they may contribute to species dying out and so diminish the biodiversity on which we all ultimately depend.

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