Illegal Wildlife Trade In China Undiminished By Bans And Health Threats
Shenzhen, China (AFP) Feb 12, 2007
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. -- Not even deadly disease deters consumption of wildlife -- "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."
earlier related report
With tigers hunted to near extinction, poachers have turned to this highly endangered big cat -- there have been only three confirmed sightings in Cambodia since 2001 -- for its parts, which are used to make traditional Chinese medicine.
The discovery was unexpected in this dusty town on the plains stretching from Cambodia's Cardamom mountains, a region of lush forest where wildlife officials have, at best, a very long slim chance against poachers and animal traffickers.
But even this minor victory in the war against wildlife traders quickly turned sour when a court ordered the release of the three men detained over the leopard parts amid threats "by alleged bodyguards and associates of powerful figures in Phnom Penh," said the group Conservation International.
The case against a fourth man, whom conservationists say is a key figure in the illegal animal trade, collapsed in October because officials didn't know what charges to bring against him.
The intimidation and legal blunders that doomed these cases highlight some of the difficulties in stemming a massive wildlife trade "that is often underestimated and largely overlooked as a 'soft' issue," says James Compton, regional director for the monitoring network TRAFFIC.
The trafficking of animals and animal parts, for food, medicines or pets, is a multi-billion-dollar global business eclipsed for profitability only by narcotics smuggling and arms dealing.
Fueled largely by China's inexhaustible appetite for exotic animals -- and exacerbated by growing affluence in neighbouring countries -- the trade has inflicted untold devastation, with some species like the tiger and the Javan rhino threatened with extinction in many Southeast Asian nations.
This has forced poachers and traffickers to turn to neighbouring countries and the result is an ecological disaster resembling a domino effect of plunging wildlife populations. -- Rising affluence driving demand and extinction -- "Vietnam's wildlife is becoming so scarce and there's such a huge demand in Vietnam that they're having to get it from outside the country," says Tim Knight, communications director for Wildlife at Risk (WAR), a non-profit group based in Ho Chi Minh City.
"A lot is smuggled in from places like Laos and Cambodia for consumption in Vietnam," he adds.
Vietnam and Thailand, where poachers have cleared the forests of the most profitable species, have emerged as the key transit points for wildlife smugglers who are often better equipped than those trying to stop them.
"The battle against animal trafficking is very tough. The people who run the illegal wildlife trade are very sophisticated and have more money," says Tassanee Vejpongsa, spokeswoman for WildAid in Bangkok.
"They just have far more resources and perhaps better international networks."
Other less obvious countries also play a key role in the trade, says TRAFFIC's Compton.
"Singapore is one of the world's top re-export hubs, and while it has legislation prohibiting export of its native species, it acts as warehouse and freight-forwarder for wild animals and plants from this region and around the globe," he says.
"Dealers are getting more and more organised. There are now reported to be packaging operations in Malaysia to save on the trouble of live transport," he adds.
Some animals like pangolins, whose meat is eaten and its scales used in Chinese medicines, are butchered and vacuum sealed for shipment to China, he says.
Freshwater turtles are simply ground up in Indonesia and the resulting "mulch" exported for consumption as protein and medicine.
Economic development over the past three decades has brought unprecedented access to exotic wildlife for the newly rich who indulge in high-status endangered animals both for food and as pets, animal advocates say.
"The biggest problem is that there is more money being spent on medicine and on wildlife in restaurants," says WAR's Knight. "The situation is deteriorating week by week because rich people want to spend their money on something to show off their status."
High-profile animals remain big ticket items for traffickers.
"Tigers are a huge concern because their numbers are now so low that every wild tiger that is killed and sold into the trade is just a conservation disaster," Knight says.
But the emerging taste for "imperial" foods formerly found on the tables of only the very wealthy have perhaps hit lesser known species the hardest.
"Turtles and tortoises are being smuggled for consumption in restaurants, in Vietnam and China and Hong Kong, for example," Knight says.
"These species are not as charismatic as tigers or bears or monkeys, so there isn't the same amount of concern about them. But they are being hoovered up at a frightening rate."
As incomes rise, the exotic pet trade has also become an increasingly dangerous drain on wildlife populations, conservationists warn.
"There is a rise in the demand for exotic pets, particularly in Thailand and Malaysia, and to a lesser extent, Singapore," says TRAFFIC's Compton, adding that Indonesia also has a huge domestic pet market, particularly for birds and reptiles.
"This involves not only species from within the Asian region, but also from Africa, particularly Madagascar, South America and Australia," he says. -- Education, heavier penalties key to combatting wildlife trade -- As the failed case against Cambodia's leopard smuggler demonstrated, animal protection efforts across Asia are being crippled by a lack of understanding of wildlife protection laws -- or an unwillingness to enforce them.
"There are efforts to curb illegal trading but they have not been effective," says WWF Indonesia species specialist Chairul Saleh.
"The law enforcement officers need to know what laws can be used to deal with this specific crime. They need to know what species is forbidden for international trade, they need to familiarise themselves with the international conventions like CITES."
CITES, or the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, is an international agreement between governments aimed at ensuring that trade in wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.
While most countries in Asia have CITES bans, some have been criticised for not implementing them rigorously enough or of being ignorant as to their use.
But others have won praise for coordinating their officials' activities with numerous conservation groups, although governments need to pour more resources into their anti-trafficking efforts, says WildAid's Tassanee.
"Police are very active and working very hard with NGOs, but they don't have enough people and they don't have enough budget," she says, adding that only about 40 officers are tasked with fighting Thailand's wildlife crimes.
"We just hope that one day the government will see that this is a very important issue," she says.
But perhaps a larger role should be given to public education, says TRAFFIC's Compton.
"Site-based protection of original habitats, policing of transport routes and border checkpoints, and public awareness and education to modify the behavioural patterns of consumer demand, is the only way to go to ensure the survival of Asia's unique biodiversity," he says.
"Treating illegal harvest and trade of wildlife in the same fashion as drugs, weapons or human trafficking will provide a major incentive for law enforcement officials, and the general public, to combat the destruction of ecosystems."
Source: Agence France-Presse
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