WILDLIFE FROM AROUND THE GLOBE IS ENDING UP IN CHINA’S RESTAURANTS AND FOLK PHARMACIES
In the spring of 2007, Chinese authorities boarded a large boat found deserted and adrift in their national waters. They discovered a cargo hold literally crammed with an international array of living animals—13 tons of them in all— that apparently had been destined for sale in China’s booming black market in wildlife. There were turtles and lizards from all over Asia, as well as over 1,000 freshwater turtles that had come from Brazil. There were several dozen pangolins, or scaly anteaters, native to the tropical rain forests of the Old World, and over 20 bear paws wrapped in paper. The crew of the craft had apparently abandoned their lucrative cargo in order to avoid detection and arrest after their engine died. No identification papers were found.
But this boatload of animals bound for China was unusual only in that the creatures were rescued, with many of them surviving their days or even weeks of dehydration, starvation and overcrowding. Conservationists say that many such boats continue to regularly transport wildlife to China, and it is logical to assume that the vast majority do not develop engine trouble. Instead, they safely and quietly reach ports where they can transfer their illegally trafficked wildlife and wildlife products into eagerly awaiting hands. Animals—many of them endangered or verging on becoming endangered—are also smuggled into China via a number of overland routes from Russia, Myanmar (Burma) and other neighboring countries.
Medicinal power of wild animals
The reputation the Cantonese have for eating wild animals is well-deserved: the long-standing tradition is a part of the culture in Lingnan (the area covering Guangdong and surrounding provinces). An employee with the Wildlife Conservation Society’s China office said that the Cantonese “will eat anything” – and the most sought-after delicacies are endangered species. 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.
The Chinese as a nation love wild animals of all kinds. They love to eat them—both as a demonstration of conspicuous consumption as well as to “absorb” some of the coveted qualities of the wild creatures they consume—and they especially love to make traditional “medicines” out of them.
The Chinese passion for eating wild animals is tied up with the belief that foods can have medicinal properties. Ancient medical writings ascribe such uses to almost all plants and animals – even animal organs, excrement, bodily fluids and skin and feathers. Chinese medicine holds that medicine and food are of the same source. These views are still hugely influential, and even the virtually illiterate can name a number of “prescriptions” for various ailments: spirits made with tiger penis or sheep testicles for virility; or tiger bones for strong bones and muscles. And it is generally accepted that health is better maintained through diet than medicine. But these ideas are becoming ever more extreme. Virtually all unusual or rare plants and animals are now endowed with incredible medicinal or nutritional properties.
So are these wild animals actually more nutritious? Zheng Jianxian, a food scientist at South China University of Technology, thinks not: “These foods don’t have the mystic properties claimed. Comparing the nutritional values of domestic fowl and livestock with wild animals we found identical quantities of protein, carbohydrates, fats and other nutrients. There is no special nutritional value or particular benefit. And even if there are some minor differences, these are nowhere near as significant as people think.”
In many cases, such foods may in fact be less nutritious. Shark fin is made up of thin strips of cartilage and has no flavour of its own, nor special nutritional value. It mainly consists of collagen, an incomplete protein as it lacks the essential amino acids tryptophan and cysteine. It is much less nutritious than shark meat, which is a complete protein.
It’s a similar story with bird’s nest soup, seen by the Chinese as a nutritional treasure. This soup is made with the nest of the cave swift, containing the bird’s saliva, seaweed, feathers and plant fibre. The saliva itself contains enzymes, mucus proteins, carbohydrates and some salt. These are all found in the saliva of other animals – there is nothing magical here. Yet these particular nests have become valuable commodities, supporting a supply chain stretching from collectors to processors to consumers. Cave swift populations on the coasts of south-east Asia face disaster due to hunting.
Feng Yongfeng, an environmental reporter at Guangming Daily, argues that most of the benefits are psychological. But that entrenched psychology is still resulting in the killing of wild animals. Mr Luo, a resident in Guangzhou, admits he eats these animals, and it would be a hard habit to change quickly. But he says the government should do more to publicise the ban on eating protected animals. The government and media have encouraged people not to eat shark fin, tiger penis and bear paw, so I won’t eat them,” he says. But he says he ate pangolin for 10 years before he found out it was a protected animal, and the public should be clearly told what can and cannot be eaten.
China’s huge population and relatively new affluence have meant that, not only have demand and prices for the earth’s illegally harvested wildlife skyrocketed in the last couple of years, but so has the incentive for, and the determination of, illegal harvesters the world over. Law enforcement officials as far from China as Zimbabwe and South Africa have reported a growing sophistication and greater reliance on expensive, state-of-the-art technology on the part of wildlife poachers in their countries, developments that can almost certainly be attributed to the amount of money the Chinese and other Asians are willing to pay for certain wildlife products.
Rhinoceros horn, for instance, now fetches a per-kilo price that is about one-third higher than an equal weight of gold. Chinese “folk pharmacists” grind up rhino horn and sell it as a “cure” for fevers and other maladies. Meanwhile, in order to obtain rhino horn, many poachers in Africa and Asia shoot rhinos with tranquilizer darts—thus avoiding the sound of a rifle shot—then hack the horns off the unconscious animals before leaving them to bleed to death or die slowly from an infection.
In 2015, booming demand in China and Vietnam has pushed the price of rhino horn over $65,000 a kilo in some market. In 2014, 1,215 rhinos were poached in South Africa alone, up from 13 in 2007. The best way to turn the tide is to reduce the demand. Campaigns to convince Chinese and Vietnamese that consuming ground rhino horn is a cruel and ineffective way to relieve a hangover, break a fever, kindle sexual desire, or heal disease. A survey in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in 2013 found that 37.5% of the population thought rhino horn can cure cancer. This working so more aggressive techniques must be found.
A South African firm, Rhino Rescue Project, for $600 per animal, drills two holes into a sedated rhino’s horn and pumps in a secret cocktail of toxins into its fibres. Consume powder fro that horn and expect a migraine, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or after a big serving, permanent twitching due to nerve damage. More than 300 horns have been treated since 2010. Since the horn is dead material, there is no risk to the animal. After a small reserve in north South Africa treated 30 rhinos, poacher incursions dropped from two per month to just four in two years, with no losses. Locals are invited to watch so word can spread.
Pembient, an American firm, will start selling synthetic rhino horn next year for $7,000 a kilo. Hopefully it will undercut the market but there is fear that advertising synthetic horn will boast sales of real horn.
Many South African officials want to see a legal trade in non-poached horn, so that government stockpiles can be sold. It is telling that they have not hired RRP.
Tigers. For another example, tiger parts, including tiger bones, eyes, and penises, are so highly prized for “curing” various afflictions as well as for enhancing a number of human physical faculties that the retail value for the components of one tiger can range from $25,000 to $50,000. Nor is a perennial Chinese proposal to permit commercial tiger ranching likely to reduce the impact on dwindling populations of wild tigers, because the purists among Chinese tiger consumers greatly prefer the “magic” of wild-bred beasts. It is likely that tigers will become extinct in the wild within the next 10 years, largely as a result of Chinese demand.
As wild tigers become increasingly scarce, bones and other parts of wild African lions have recently been making their way to China as a tiger substitute. Lions have also been decreasing in number, though not yet to the same extent as tigers.
Pangolins. Also known as scaly anteaters, they feed wholly on ants and termites and their body is covered by rows os scales made of compressed fibrous hairlike material. There are not scales on their belly so they protect themselves by rolling into a ball when threatened. They locate food with their strong sense of smell and then gather the ants with their long sticky tongue. A Sunda pangolin can eat around 200,000 ants or termites per day. They dig or climb trees to access the ant nests or tear into termite mounds with their thick, powerful claws. They are solitary by nature and usually only have one young at a time after a gestation period of at least 130 days so reproduce slowly. They can reach 65cm in length with a tail length of about 55cm. Not only are they considered excellent table fare, but their scales are thought to have a variety of “medical” uses, from improving lactation to curing cancer. Of the 8 pangolin species native to Asia and Africa, two—the Chinese pangolin and the Sunda pangolin—are already classified as Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and 4 others are listed by the IUCN as Near Threatened. Pangolins are reported to be worth as much as $50 a pound, or $95 a kilo, in China, where they are served fairly openly at high-end restaurants.
Reptiles. China is also the world’s largest consumer of freshwater turtles and tortoises, many of which are being pushed toward extinction. Turtles, snakes, crocodiles, and other reptiles are eaten as well as used medicinally in the belief that their consumption can cure skin diseases, relieve pain, and provide other physical benefits.
Giant salamander. A remarkable species native only to China—the Chinese giant salamander, which, at a maximum of 1.8 meters or nearly 6 feet in length, is the world’s largest amphibian—is now nearly extinct because it has been relentlessly hunted for food by Chinese people. Seahorses are ground up and used by Chinese folk pharmacists as an asthma remedy.
Primates. Chinese purveyors also illegally import primates, including monkeys and gibbons—more than a dozen species of small, Southeast Asian apes, all of which are endangered—for high-end table fare, as well as for use in making folk medicines.
Bears. The gall bladders of bears are sold in China, where the bile is extracted for use in “curing” stomach ailments and in the belief that it can break down gallstones. The paws of bears are also eaten and used in a number of “medicinal” applications; a single paw can reportedly fetch a retail price of over $500. As a result, parts of illegally killed bears from as far away as North America and northern Russia have ended up in Chinese markets, restaurants and pharmacies. China’s endangered native pandas are also occasionally consumed in the same manner and for the same reasons as other bears—although severe penalties for panda poaching and trafficking have cut down dramatically on the species’ commercial persecution.
Ivory. China also has a long tradition of ivory carving. Much of the ivory artwork the country produces is truly exquisite—but much of the raw ivory itself comes from illegally killed elephants from both Africa and Asia at a time when wild elephant populations everywhere are declining.
The present has become dire for the rhinos and elephants of Africa. After years of relative calm, trafficking in species like elephants and rhinos doubled from 2007 to 2013, largely to meet the growing demand for ivory and other animal products from the rising consumer class of Asia. 100,000 elephants have been killed by poachers from 2010-2012. Poaching now accounts for 65% of elephant deaths, up from 25% a decade ago. By some estimates, wildlife trafficking is the fourth largest international crime, carried out by global criminal syndicates, for whom the trade is almost as lucrative as drugs but far safer. There’s even evidence that poaching now fuels terrorism-militant groups like Somalia’s al-Shabab derive a portion of their income from wildlife trafficking.
But in the face of this loss, the Northern Rangelands Trust, a Kenya-based NGO that has helped community conservancies learn to protect the wildlife they live alongside. Sometimes that means protecting people, as when an ornery elephant is relocated to reduce human-animal conflict. But often it’s the hard, dangerous battle against wildlife trafficking. As many as 1,000 park rangers have been killed in battles with poachers over the past decade. On the black market, slaughtering animals will always pay better than preserving them. But they soldier on, fighting to protect beings that cannot protect themselves.
Sea Turtles. In January 2015, the Indonesian government’s Fisheries intercepted a Chinese shipment of mangrove crabs that also contained 2,350 live soft-shelled sea turtles. The shipment was on a Singapore Airlines flight was bound for Shanghia. The turtles cost 470 million Rp (US$7,600) with a market price of 200,000Rp per kilogram. These turtles are CITIES listed as illegal to catch. Of the mangrove crabs, 709 had a carapace length of less than 15cm, a size that is illegal to catch. The previous day, the same company was prevented from shipping 140 young lobsters below the legal size to catch (8cm). That shipment was destined for Hong Kong. The lobster population in Indonesia is on red alert.
Shark Fin. In addition to its black-market wildlife imports, China, along with Taiwan, is the world’s largest importers of legally harvested shark fins, which are used to make a celebratory dish called shark-fin soup. Shark-fin consumption has zoomed with the growth of the Chinese middle class, resulting in the worldwide capture and killing of millions of sharks each year and the reduction of some species by as much as 90 percent. In many cases, after hacking off the fins they require in order to swim, shark fishermen the throw still-living, but helpless, sharks back into the ocean.
Because sharks are the top, or apex, predators in most ocean environments, the removal of large numbers of them has the potential to severely disrupt vast aquatic ecosystems the world over.
The Fisheries Department of the government of Indonesia intercepted a Chinese fishing boat, the Hai Fa, with 9007 tons of frozen fish, as well as 66 tons of hammerhead sharks and white tip reef sharks, both illegal to catch.
Shark Fins and Hong Kong.
It was significant news that the volume of shark fin products imported into Hong Kong in 2013 dropped by 34.7% – the catch was a drop from 8,285.1 tons to 5,412.2 tons over 2012!!!! I can’t imagine how many sharks it takes to make 5,000 tons. And that is only Hong Kong.
There was also a decrease in re-export shark fins, from 2,438 tons to 2,003.7 tons or 17.5%. Of that, the re-export to mainland China dropped from 1,170 tons to 114 tons, nearly 90%! with Vietnam becoming the main re-export destination in 2013.
WWF has had an active campaign in the city since 2007 to “Say No to Shark Fins”. Present codes do not identify specific shark species making it difficult to monitor trade trends. DNA testing is required. CITES has added more shark species.
I went on a five day diving trip to the Mergui Archipelago in south Myanmar in November, 2013. Burmese fishermen were seen every day. Many pinnacles and reefs were strewn with fishing nets weighted down with rocks and caught on the rocky protrusions. One pinnacle, obviously a common fishing site, had several nets caught on the rocks and all hard coral and sea fans had been destroyed producing an undersea desert. Dynamite fishing was common and the areas we dove in were littered with dead fish. Over 16 dives, no one saw a shark, manta ray or large fish like the Napoleon Wrasse. Of all these dive sites, only three were considered excellent with large schools of fish and or coral, seafans and anenomes. They were all at the farthest limit from the mainland that we dove at, and thus saw fewer fishermen.
These poor fishermen were not really to blame, the prices for their catch of sharks and other large fish is so high, that they cannot refuse. The problem is the high demand and prices paid by their ultimate consumer, the Chinese.
Napolean Wrasse. A less commonly discussed fish is the Napolean or Bumphead Wrasse, a large, docile fish once common throughout the oceans of SE Asia. It is believed that eating living Napolean Wrasse increases virility, and its lips are a special aphrodisiac. Fishermen use sodium cyanide in large squirt bottles sprayed into the cavities the fish tries to hide in to evade the fishermen. It paralyzes them making them easy to catch but keeps them alive. They are then transported in live pens on board boats to Hong Kong and kept alive in the markets and restaurants. In 1995, a kilo of live fish fetched $200/kilo and the lips $300/kilo. Because of increasing scarcity, they are worth much more today – if any can be found as they have become rare.
One restaurant has a special method of preparation. The live animal’s head is frozen with liquid nitrogen, and the body cooked (it sounds like a complicated technique), and then served. As the head thaws, reflex nervous activity makes the flesh, and especially the lips quiver, as if still alive, and thus bestowing special qualities to the fish.
None of this is to say that China is the only Asian country that imports threatened wildlife; it is just the biggest, wealthiest, most insatiable such market, by far.
Nor is the Chinese government entirely apathetic in the face of the illegal wildlife trade. In fact, over the years they have made a number of high-profile busts that have resulted in the seizures of large amounts of animal products.
However, most conservation observers agree that, given the immense size of China’s wildlife market and the serious threat it poses to threatened animals on almost every continent, the Chinese government should not only be directing many more law enforcement resources toward the problem, but it should be doing a better job of educating its people about the terrible and probably irreversible damage some of them are doing to their own natural heritage, and that of the rest of the world as well.
The trade in illegal animal products continues in Guangzhou markets, despite crackdowns. It’s not yet light, but Mr Qiu of Foshan in Guangdong is busy transferring king ratsnakes from a cage into a sack. He then tips them into a boiling pot. He’s been running his snake-soup shop for over a decade. In winter, residents of Guangdong province, south China, pay particular attention to diet and nutrition, meaning the shop is constantly busy. A bowl of piping hot snake soup is a breakfast favourite for many locals looking to ward off the cold. Cantonese have always believed that snake meat can treat illnesses, plus its nutritious and keeps out the cold.
The market for meat from wild animals is on the increase, with restaurants doing good – if under the table – business. Protected animals such as monitor lizards and pangolins are hunted and traded illegally, eventually ending up on diners’ plates.
Among the most regularly eaten in Guangdong are: the pangolin, the monitor lizard, the giant salamander, wild snakes, owls and the yellow-breasted bunting. After preparation, an owl can be worth about 1,800 yuan. Pangolins sell for 500 yuan a jin, monitor lizards for about 100 yuan.
The yellow-breasted bunting may be the animal traded most frequently in the city’s markets. The nutritional value of the bird has acquired almost mythical status in the past three decades. In season, 100,000 might be delivered to restaurants every day, each worth 100 yuan when made into soup. Huge flocks of these birds used to fly over Beijing in the spring and summer, but they have hardly been seen for the last decade – soon they will have all been eaten up. “Migratory birds all know to avoid Guangdong now,” says Yang.
Preparing such delicacies is a bloody business. A chef from a restaurant in the Guangdong city of Shenzhen described how to butcher a pangolin: first, stun it with a hammer blow to the head, then hang it up from a rope and use a sharp knife to open its throat and drain the blood. Next, place it in boiling water to remove the scales – just like removing feathers from a chicken. Then use a low heat to remove the fine hairs. Finally, gut it, clean it and cook it. The meat can be braised, steamed in clear soup or stewed.
“Most of the frequent customers aren’t paying their own bills,” said one restaurant boss. “Businessmen who need a favour are taking them out for dinner, when they need to flash their cash, or show their respect for an official.” And it is government customers that are protecting restaurants selling illegal meats. Customers are all regulars, and to become a regular yourself requires an introduction. A stranger walking in and asking for these foods will get nowhere.
The actual cooking doesn’t usually take place at the restaurant. The restaurant boss will rent somewhere nearby – it might be a stove in a storeroom, or maybe a factory canteen kitchen. Orders are prepared there before being taken to the restaurant for any finishing touches and to be served.
The Vietnam and Myanmar supply chain.
Guangdong might be where many of China’s wild animals are eaten, but it’s not where they come from.
The monitor lizards and pangolins in Guangdong’s markets come mostly from Vietnam and Myanmar, having been transported in via south China’s Guangxi and Yunnan provinces. Other animals are usually sourced from China’s Hubei province or the north-west. Birds of prey are caught in Gansu, Ningxia or Qinghai, while other birds are caught on the coasts of Jiangsu and Zhejiang in eastern China. Bear paws are brought in from Yunnan.
Li Yiming of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Zoology, studies the trade in wild animals on the China-Vietnam border. He says the economic gap between the two nations allow for huge profits to be made from smuggling illegal game.
Five Finger Mountain on Hainan island, south China, is home to numerous wild animals and has excellent transportation links. Combined with the rampant poaching industry, this makes it a major source of wild animals for Guangdong’s markets.
The king cobra is an extremely rare snake, in China surviving only in the virgin forests of the sub-tropics. But since just one of them sells for at least 2,000 yuan, the hunters are adept at finding them. After a quick sale, the snakes will likely be shifted to Guangzhou or Hong Kong.
The hunters also place traps where the virgin and secondary forests meet. Animals are often found here as they move between the abundant fruit in the virgin forest and hiding places in the denser secondary forest. The traps are simple, but no less dangerous. The poachers often cut off an animal’s limbs before carrying it down the mountain. The head is of no use and is discarded.
They work after sunset, explains local resident Ah Mao: “They have guns stashed up on the mountain, and go up with torches to find them and hide, listening out for animals like the civet cats and the red giant flying squirrel – these animals drop fruit peel on the ground when they’re eating, so they’re easy to hear. The hunters listen out for this and use their torches to spot their prey. The animal’s eyes reflect the light, making them an easy target. The hunters hit their mark nine times out of 10.”
The catch is skinned and dried in front of a fire before being taken home to await collection. Once the merchant has a full load, he drives it to Haikou city, where someone else loads it onto a freighter, labelled as frozen meat bound for China’s biggest wild-animal meat market: Guangzhou.
Markets evade crackdown
The second link in this illegal trade takes place when the various products arrive in Guangzhou and are sold at markets. Hu Shijia, an expert with the South China Wildlife Species Testing Centre, has been studying such markets since 2006. He says that tougher law enforcement has forced the traders underground, and that outsiders are unlikely to be aware of them.
According to Hu, the biggest market in the region is the Xingfu Wholesale Market, outside the city of Conghua, about 46 miles from Guangzhou city centre. This agricultural market sells all types of poultry and livestock. And on an undercover visit, many merchants were also found to be hawking civet meat. One stallholder said he had the meat in stock, at 110 yuan a jin.
In the snake section, live snakes writhe in cages and nets. When asked if they had pangolin, king cobras or the Chinese cobra, all some stallholders wanted to know was “how much do you want?”
A source with Guangzhou’s forestry police said the market is busiest between the early hours of the morning and 6am. Activity peaks at about 4am. Animals are brought in on trucks from other provinces, and taken to Guangzhou and the Pearl River Delta in vans and cars. There used to be two major wild game markets nearer to Guangzhou. The one on Zengcha Road in the Baiyun district was once the largest in China, but is now in decline. The other was Qingfeng Food Market in nearby Foshan. Xingfu Wholesale Market has now taken their place. But for years, new markets have been springing up following crackdowns elsewhere, and the actual trade continues unabated.
Nature reserves selling bushmeat
More worrying are the restaurants selling “bushmeat” next to national nature reserves, where food is going directly from the poachers to the kitchen. The Southern Metropolis Daily has reported in the past that protected animals such as the silver pheasant, muntjac deer and the ring-necked pheasant were being openly butchered and killed in numerous restaurants around the Nanling National Forest Park, Guangdong’s largest national reserve. The Cabot’s tragopan, another type of pheasant, is subject to the highest level of state protection as there are only several thousand left. It was also being killed for food.
The local forestry police offices are only several hundred metres away from these restaurants.
Worse, even if these animals were saved, there is still a possibility they would end up back on the dinner table. Many diners said that animal rescue authorities and the forestry police actually poach the animals they are meant to protect. Animals released into the wild may later be caught for sale. Other animals might be trapped under the pretence of providing medical treatment and then smuggled off to the dinner table. Some reserve workers simply catch and sell their charges.
“It’s an open secret,” says an insider, Mr Li: many restaurants obtain their meat from animal protection centres. Media reports have accused the forestry police in one Pearl River Delta city of confiscating bear paws – and then taking the paws to a restaurant to eat.
Zou Ke of the Guangdong Wildlife Rescue Centre said that, under the rules, rescued animals will always be returned to the wild if possible. If an animal cannot be saved, it may be used as a specimen at zoos or research institutes, where it might be dissected or stuffed as an exhibit. Otherwise, the body will be sent to a waste disposal facility.
Wang Yingyong, deputy head and senior engineer at Sun Yat-Sen University’s Museum of Biology, said that the reserves often exist only in name and animal protection is failing. Gong Shiping, a researcher with the South China Endangered Animals Institute, is blunt: “Once they have reserve status they want to make use of it. Conservation duties are put aside for the sake of profit.” Many reserves aren’t keen on meeting experts on conservation – they prefer tourist developers and investors, who get the green light and may even be able to develop at the very heart of the reserve. Gong has seen that patrols are weak in many reserves, with little law enforcement and poaching often going unpunished.
“There aren’t any measures in place to ensure protection takes place,” says Gong. “There’s no monitoring or oversight of whether or not patrols are carried out and if the reserve is being protected. That leaves a huge opportunity for the managers. And some reserve managers have privately told reporters that funding is inadequate. If 100 yuan is needed, the reserve might only get 50 yuan.”
You can’t judge how effective animal protection is at a glance, like you can with trees, says Gong. “With animals you need specialised monitoring to get a handle on it. Again, that leaves room for neglect.”
Some resourceful Guangdong officials believe that investment in assets such as property and stocks is not risk free. They will be punished if discovered. Better to squander their ill-gotten money in eating some exotic luxurious food. As a result, there is a big market of precious wild animals in Guangdong, especial engendered species such as flying lemurs, pangolins, civet cats and some rare monkeys and snakes.
At a market near the government office of Tiaping Town, Conghua, transactions of wild animals are carried out from 3am to 5am. Recently, some 3,000 animals were sold in three days. As those in charge of the market bribe the officials, they are notified beforehand and take their goods away before inspectors come. According to the restaurants providing food from the wild animals there, their customers are mostly officials who are willing to spend 2,000 to 10,000 yuan ($320 to $1,600) for such food.
Student activists try to save wildlife on China’s menu
As some rare wildlife species approach extinction, conservation groups are working to change China’s appetite for exotic animals. Animal welfare activists Wen Zhenyu and Luo Xinmei are trying to halt the illegal sale of endangered animals for food and medicines in the markets of Guangzhou in China
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.
Demand dropped briefly after 2003, when the 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 Rogi 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 $70,000.
The authorities launch occasional raids on restaurants and dealers. Last month, Guangzhou wildlife protection officials intercepted a cargo of smuggled golden pheasant, sand badger, leopard cat and other animals.
Two food outlets in the Honghua hot spring resort outside Guangzhou openly breaking the law by serving pangolin and other protected animals. The Huasheng restaurant charges 1,000 yuan (about $150) per kilogram 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, the Liyuan Meiwei 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.
China’s insatiable appetite for minerals and gas is less than a threat than its hunt for the furs, meat and body parts of endangered animals. Chinese demand has resulted in an 80% decline in the number of marmots and an 85% drop in the number of saga antelope.
BILE FARMING FROM BEARS
Bile bears or battery bears are bears kept in captivity to harvest bile, a digestive juice produced by the liver and stored in the gall bladder. The Asiatic black bear (Ursus thibetanus) is the species most commonly farmed, however, the sun bear (Helarctos malayanus) and the brown bear (Ursus arctos) are also used. Both the Asiatic black bear and the sun bear are listed as Vulnerable on the World Conservation Union’s (IUCN’s) Red List of Threatened Animals. When extracted, the bears’ bile is a valuable commodity for sale as an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine.
Bear bile collection occurs in China, North Korea, South Korea, Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar.
China was the first country to use bear bile and its gall bladder as an ingredient in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Bear bile was first recorded in “Tang Ban Cao” (Newly Revised Materia Medica, Tang Dynasty, 659 A.D.). For thousands of years, the traditional way to acquire bear bile was to kill a wild animal and remove its gall bladder. The use of bear bile in medicines was adopted by Korea and Japan centuries ago and today, the use of TCM is widespread not only in Asia but also throughout Asian communities in other areas of the world, including Europe and America.
In the early 1980s, bile bear farms began appearing in North Korea, eventually spreading to other regions.
The practice of bile bear farming is ethically controversial because of cruel treatment of the bears alleged by bile-farming opponents. The Chinese government, however, has attempted to justify bear farming, claiming that the farms promote captive breeding and reduce the need to hunt and kill wild bears. Nonetheless, the bears continue to be hunted in the wild in order to supply bears to the bile farms, allegedly because of difficulties with captive breeding where a gall bladder can fetch up to U.S.$3,000 – $5,000.
Housing and husbandry.
To facilitate the bile milking process, the bears are commonly kept in extraction cages, also known as crush cages, that measure around 79 cm x 130 cm x 200 cm (2.6 feet x 4.4 feet x 6.5 feet) for an animal that weighs between 50 to 120 kilograms (110 to 260 lb). While this allows for easier access to the abdomen, it also prevents the bears from being able to stand upright, or in some cases even greater restriction. In two model Chinese bile farms, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) reports that the bears are moved to the crush cages for milking, but the rest of the time live in a cage large enough to stand and turn around.
Longevity and mortality. Farmed bile bears are often malnourished and in poor health, living to an average age of five years; healthy captive bears can live until age 35 and wild bears live to 25-30 years. If the bears live past age five, they are most often killed around age 10, since by then their productivity usually drops off. They are then sold for their meat, fur, paws and gall bladders. Bear paws are considered a delicacy, and have been seen priced at $250.
Farmed bile bears can suffer from a variety of physical ailments which include loss of hair, malnutrition, stunted growth, muscle mass loss, and often have their teeth and claws extracted.
Abnormal behaviour. Living for 10–12 years under such circumstances results in severe mental stress and muscle atrophy. Researchers to 11 bile farms reported seeing bears moaning, banging their heads against their cages, and chewing their own paws (autophagia).
1. Repeated injection in which an ultrasound imager is used to locate the gall bladder which is then punctured and the bile extracted.
2. Permanent implantation of a tube through the abdomen and into the gall bladder. According to the HSUS, the bile is usually extracted twice a day through such implanted tubes, producing 10–20 ml of bile during each extraction. Catheterization involves pushing a hollow steel or perspex catheter through the bear’s abdomen. The use of metal catheters has been banned, although the HSUS writes that bile bears are still seen with catheters in them.
3. The “full-jacket” method uses a permanent catheter tube to extract the bile which is then collected in a plastic bag set in a metal box worn by the bear.
4. The “free drip” method is regarded as more humane. A permanent hole, or fistula, is made in the bear’s abdomen and gall bladder, from which bile drips out freely. The wound is vulnerable to infection and bile can bleed back into the abdomen, causing high mortality rates. Sometimes the hole is kept open with a perspex catheter, which HSUS writes causes severe pain.
5. Removal of the gall bladder whole is sometimes used.
Wild population. There is no definitive estimate of the number of Asian black bears in the wild: Although their reliability is unclear, rangewide estimates of 5–6,000 bears have been presented by Russian biologists. Rough density estimates without corroborating methods or data have been made in India and Pakistan, resulting in estimates of 7–9,000 in India and 1,000 in Pakistan. Unsubstantiated estimates from China give varying estimates between 15–46,000, with a government estimate of 28,000. Some estimates put the total Asia-wide population as low as 25,000.
China. In July 2000, Animals Asia Foundation, a Hong Kong based charity, signed an agreement with the Chinese government to remove 500 endangered Asian black bears from bile farms in Sichuan province and work towards ending the practice. Today, the China Bear Rescue has placed 219 previously farmed moon bears at a Sanctuary in Chengdu, and is helping to advance the concept of animal welfare in China.
The World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) conducted a study in 1999 and 2000, and estimated that there were 247 bear bile farms in China, holding 7,002 bears, though the Chinese government called the figures “pure speculation.” The Chinese consider bear farms a way to reduce the demand on the wild bear population. Officially 7,600 captive bears are farmed in China. According to Chinese officials, 10,000 wild bears would need to be killed each year to produce as much bile. The government sees farming as a reasonable answer to the loss of wild bears from poaching, and at the same time are indifferent to the cruelty issues that concern Western animal rights activists. In 2013, estimates of bears kept in cages in China for bile production range from 9,000 to 20,000 bears on nearly 100 domestic bear farms.
Vietnam. There are estimated to be 4,000 bile bears in Vietnam, where their bile can sell for 100,000 dong (~US$6.25) per millilitre (with 37,500 dong a week regarded as the poverty line for an urban resident).
Korea. In 2009, according to the Korean Environment Ministry, there were 1,374 bears raised at 74 farms across South Korea. In Korea it is legal to raise bears for bile and bears older than 10 years old can be harvested for their paws and organs. By 2012, it is estimated the number of bears in Korean farms will have risen to about 1,600.
Laos. In Laos, bear bile can sell for 120,000 kip (~US$15) per millilitre (with 240,000 kip being the average monthly wage in the country). The number of bile bears is estimated at more than 100 individuals.
Treatments and products
The monetary value of the bile comes from the traditional prescription of bear bile by doctors practicing traditional Chinese medicine. Bear bile contains ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA). It is purchased and consumed to treat hemorrhoids, sore throats, sores, bruising, muscle ailments, sprains, epilepsy, reduce fever, improve eye-sight, break down gall stones, act as an anti-inflammatory, reduce the effects of over-consumption of alcohol, and to ‘clear’ the liver. It is currently found in various forms for sale including whole gall bladders, raw bile, pills, powder, flakes and ointment.
Because only minute amounts of bile are used in traditional Chinese medicine, a total of 500 kg of bear bile is used by practitioners every year, but according to WSPA more than 7,000 kg is being produced. The surplus is being used in other non-essential products such as throat lozenges, shampoo, toothpaste, wine, tea, eyedrops, and general tonics.
Efficacy. There have been various claims made regarding the efficacy of bile in treatments. It has been stated “These products have absolutely no benefit to health” and “Scientists have scrutinized the health effects of bear bile but have come to no definitive conclusions”.
Welfare enforcement. In January 2006, the Chinese State Council Information Office held a press conference in Beijing, during which the government said that it was enforcing a “Technical Code of Practice for Raising Black Bears,” which “requires hygienic, painless practice for gall extraction and make strict regulations on the techniques and conditions for nursing, exercise and propagation.” However, a 2007 veterinary report published by the Animals Asia Foundation (AAF) stated that the Technical Code was not being enforced and that many bears were still spending their entire lives in small extraction cages without free access to food or water. AAF also noted that the free-dripping technique promoted in the Technical Code was unsanitary as the fistula created to access the gall bladder allowed for an open portal through which bacteria could infiltrate the abdomen. The AAF report also stated that surgeries to create free-dripping fistulae caused bears great suffering as they were performed without appropriate antibiotics or pain management and the bears were repeatedly exposed to this process as the fistulae often healed over. The free-dripping method still requires the bears to be prodded with a metal rod when the wound heals over and, under veterinary examination, some bears with free-dripping fistulae were actually found to have clear perspex catheters permanently implanted into their gall bladders. In addition to the suffering caused by infection and pain at the incision site, 28% of fistulated bears also experience abdominal hernias and more than a third eventually succumb to liver cancer, believed to be associated with the bile-extraction process.
Alternatives. There are more than 50 legal herbal alternatives and many synthetic alternatives.
Pharmacology. The active therapeutic substance in bear bile—and in the bile of all mammals—is ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA). Before the manufacture of UDCA by pharmaceutical companies, bear bile was prescribed by practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine because it contained a higher percentage of UDCA than the bile of other mammals. However, modern chemistry has made this fact irrelevant. Today, pharmaceutical-grade UDCA is now collected from slaughterhouses, then purified and packaged under trade names such as Ursosan, Ursofalk, Actigall, and UrsoForte. Chinese doctors have also endorsed several herbal substitutes, which provide a cheap, effective and readily available alternative.
Substances in mammalian bile other than UDCA, such as cholesterol, have never been demonstrated to have any healing effect in humans. Despite this observation and the availability of affordable pharmaceutical-grade UDCA, some practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine continue to prescribe whole bear bile for their patients and reject any sort of modern substitute.
Price of products. Raw bile can sell for as much as U.S.$24,000 a kilogram, approximately half the price of gold.
A report published in 2013 stated that a poacher in North America can usually get U.S.$100 to $150 for a gall bladder, but the organs can fetch U.S.$5,000 to $10,000 in the end-market once they are processed into a powder. The report also stated that the HSUS indicated a bear gall bladder can cost more than $3,000 in Asia. A TRAFFIC report estimated that prices for whole gall bladders were as low as $51.11 (Myanmar) and as high as $2,000 (Hong Kong SAR). For gall bladder by the gram, the least expensive was $0.11 per gram (Thailand) and the highest was $109.70 per gram (Japan).
Pill prices ranged from as low as $0.38 per pill (Malaysia) to $3.83 per pill (Thailand).
Businesses. In 2010, the Guizhentang Pharmaceutical company was one of the most successful bile extraction companies in China, paying some 10 million yuan in taxes. In 2012, the company tried to go public in the Shenzhen stock exchange and proposed to triple the company’s stock of captive bears, from 400 to 1,200. This provoked a large response from those opposed to bear bile farming, and met heavy challenges from activists, internet users and protesters. This was followed by a number of controversies along with public interviews.
SNAKE WINE (and scorpions, lizards, bear paws)
Snake wine is an alcoholic beverage produced by infusing whole snakes in rice wine or grain alcohol. The drink was first recorded to have been consumed in China during the Western Zhou dynasty and considered an important curative and believed to reinvigorate a person according to Traditional Chinese medicine. It can be found in China, Vietnam and throughout Southeast Asia.
The snakes, preferably venomous ones, are not usually preserved for their meat but to have their “essence” and snake venom dissolved in the liquor. However, the snake venom is denatured by the ethanol; its proteins are unfolded and therefore inactive.
The Huaxi street night market of Taipei, Taiwan, is renowned for its snake foods and wine products.
When I was in Luang Prabang, Laos in December, 2013, I went to see the Pak Ou Caves. Access was by boat on the Mekong River. About half way along, we had the mandatory stop at a market. In one of the houses was a snake wine operation. Eight large glass jars each had a specific animal steeping in rice whiskey – cobras, lizards, scorpions, bear paws and other unidentifiable creatures. Each jar had a spigot and we could have had some. Wow, who would drink this stuff – whole animals fermenting could not be good. This was just one operation and there were likely many more throughout the country.
There are two varieties of snake wine:
Steeped: A large venomous snake can be placed into a glass jar of rice wine, sometimes with smaller snakes and medicinal herbs and left to steep for many months. The wine is drunk as a restorative in small shots or cups.
Mixed: Body fluids of snake are mixed into wine and consumed immediately in the form of a shot. Snake blood wine is prepared by slicing a snake along its belly and draining its blood directly into the drinking vessel filled with rice wine or grain alcohol. Snake bile wine is done through a similar method by using the contents of the gall bladder.
Snakes and their tissue portions have long been considered by followers of Traditional Chinese medicine to be invaluable for the promotion of vitality and health. The drink was first recorded to be used in China during the Western Zhou dynasty (771 BC) and the medicinal use of snakes was noted in the medical manual Shen nong ben cao jing compiled between 300 B.C. and 200 A.D. The detailed use of various snake species, their body parts, and various preparations were greatly elaborated in the medical manual Bencao Gangmu of Li Shizhen in the Ming dynasty.
Snake wine can be found in many areas of Vietnam, Southeast Asia and Southern China.
Snakes are widely believed to possess medicinal qualities and the wine is often advertised to cure everything from farsightedness to hair loss, as well as to increase sexual performance. In Vietnam, snake wine (Rượu rắn) is widely believed by some individuals to improve health and virility. A similar drink is made with geckos, lizards, bear paws, scorpions and sea horses rather than snakes. Snake wine, due to its high alcohol percentage, is drunk in shot glasses traditionally. Braver drinkers may eat certain parts of the snake or snakes such as the gall bladder, the eyeballs and stomach.
It is illegal to import snake wine to many countries because the cobras and other snakes killed in the production are often endangered species.
WHALES – WHERE DO PEOPLE STILL HUNT WHALES – Dec. 2015
Japan’s whaling fleet set sail on Dec. 1 in defiance of a 2014 UN order to cease the practice. It’s not the only place to bypass the International Whaling Commission’s 1986 ban on commercial operations.
Norway respected the IWC ban until 1993, then used a loophole to declare itself exempt. Oslo has since lifted its annual kill quota from 425 in 1996 to over 1,200 today, though only half that many are caught.
Greenland has historically been given permission for its native Inuit to hunt whales for subsistence needs, currently set at 207 kills per year. Critics say the quota is too high, so the surplus will continue to be sold commercially and to tourists.
Iceland declared itself exempt from the IWC moratorium in 2004. Iceland’s quota allows for the export of 154 endangered fin whales to Japan – though demand for the meat is scarce – and over 200 minke whales for domestic consumption.
Alaska. Indigenous peoples living along Alaska’s coast have been hunting bowhead whales for thousands of years. The Alaskan natives were set an overall quota of 306 bowheads from 3013 to 2018; catches are shared among the whole community.