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SOS Rhino : In the News : A change of menu for China's popular wildlife markets

A change of menu for China's popular wildlife markets


Monday, Jun 02, 2003,Page 5

The civet cats are gone from their cages at the market, replaced by ducks and rabbits. The snakes are missing too, as are the bats, badgers and anteater-like pangolins.

For years, the hundreds of stalls at the Chatou Wild Animal Food Market in China's southern city of Guangzhou were a snapping, hissing zoo of exotic, sometimes endangered wildlife destined for the plates of the nation's most adventurous diners.

Then came SARS and the discovery that civets and some other small animals carry the virus that has killed more than 600 people in China and Hong Kong.

Authorities in Guangdong province, which includes Guangzhou, ordered an end to the wildlife trade this week and told farms raising exotic species to quarantine their animals. Some traders have been detained, and violators are threatened with fines of up to 100,000 yuan (US$12,000).

" These are the rules. What can we do?" said vendor He Dawei, who had already removed the Chinese characters for "wildlife" from the sign on his stall. "They say they'll arrest you if you don't comply."

Diners in southern China have long prized exotic meats killed on the spot -- a practice criticized by doctors as unhygienic and by animal activists as encouraging more poaching of endangered species.

" We all like to eat this stuff -- the more exotic or endangered the better," said a bus company employee in Guangzhou who would give only his surname, Lin. "There will always be places to get this stuff, because people love to eat it so much."

Chinese claim wildlife dishes boost virility and strengthen immunity to disease. Chinese are also keen consumers of endangered species for traditional cures. Rhino horn, tiger bone and bear gall are all highly sought after.

Even in urban Hong Kong, conservationists say 30 percent of the population have eaten wildlife.

The offbeat cuisine includes dishes such as "dragon and tiger head" -- actually a snake and house cat casserole.

Fox, boar, raccoon dog -- name it and it might be on the menu. Many are listed as endangered species by China, meaning it should be illegal to catch them, but enforcement is lax.

And diners in prosperous Guangzhou, at the heart of the export-oriented manufacturing region of the Pearl River Delta north of Hong Kong, can afford to indulge.

Civet, which is related to the mongoose, can fetch 90 yuan (US$22) per kilogram -- a princely sum in China.

Demand is so strong that civets are close to being wiped out in the Tailing nature area in the northern province of Shanxi, a key source for exotic species.

At those prices, conservationists wonder how long China can enforce the ban.

" If anything good is coming out of SARS, it's that these markets are being closed down," said Jill Robinson of the Hong Kong-based group Animals Asia. However, she said, "It's too early to tell whether it will be sustained."

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