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China's dangerous appetite for rare animals

GUANGZHOU, China — The teenaged cook grabs a handful of slim green snakes from their cage outside the kitchen, seizing them by their necks as he wields his cleaver in the other hand. In a matter of minutes, he slits the skin of each snake from neck to tail, the squirming reptiles still alive and moving in a frenzy as they’re dropped into a wok.

In a matter of one hour, the snakes will be eaten, plates cleaned by local businessmen along with glasses of beer and rice wine. The small creatures, believed to have been smuggled into China from Vietnam, are among tens of thousands of protected and endangered animals illegally trafficked across China’s borders to feed an ever-growing appetite.

It seems that for many, the best way to demonstrate new wealth and power in China is to eat something rare, something potentially illegal. Nowhere is this better witnessed than in Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province.

“Guangdong is a semi-tropical climate and they once had a lot of wild animals, so the custom of eating wild animals is very strong,” explained Fang Minghe, head of a citizen environmental watchdog group called Green Eyes. “In recent years, Guangdong’s economy has developed very well. People here are rich and things are expensive, and wild animals are becoming table luxuries that are sold for very high prices.”

In the same restaurant, a cobra lounges warily in a cage next to the kitchen, waiting for some diner to seal his fate. The staff won’t say where he came from, but an environmental group that monitors the wildlife trafficking industry in Guangzhou says it is almost certain that the regal, three-foot-long snake was brought into China illegally or under hazy circumstances.

Environmental groups have stepped up their efforts in recent years to monitor and report on China’s illegal wildlife trade, seeking to stop the ever-increasing smuggling of rare and endangered animals. But their efforts thus far have not matched the power of China’s growing wealth boom.

The numbers are staggering. According to Traffic, a wildlife trade monitoring organization, China’s borders are “hot spots” for this illicit business. Estimates vary, but the illicit animal trade is believed to be worth more than $10 billion annually in China. The trade kills protected bears, tigers, snakes, turtles, fish and just about anything that has or once had a pulse.

In the city’s traditional medicine market, hundreds of vendors peddle banned animal parts along with their legal herbs and potions, most notably, the flesh and scales of the pangolin — a critically endangered Southeast Asian anteater that is being driven to the brink of extinction by Chinese demand.

While most rare animal consumption in China seems targeted at male virility, the medicine vendors say the pangolin’s main purpose is to improve the health and breast milk of new mothers. But pangolin flesh is being sacrificed into near oblivion for pure human pleasure. Locals laugh that Guangzhou residents are known for wanting to eat “strange foods” — the stranger, the better.

According to one study, as many as 50,000 pangolins lived wild in China in 2000. They are now gone, and China has started draining its neighbors of the needle-nosed creatures, with smugglers bringing in thousands every year from Vietnam, Myanmar, Indonesia and Malaysia. One restaurant in Ruili, a small city hundreds of miles from here on Myanmar's border with China, is known for offering pangolin on the menu.

Most recently, Africa has become a provider of smuggled animal parts to feed the Chinese hunger. In recent years, the ivory trade has boomed in China — particularly in Guangzhou, where even the airport has a shop that sells nothing but ornate carvings made from elephant tusks. The lobby of one five-star hotel in the city center showcases a massive carving depicting life in the Song Dynasty, using dozens of elephant tusks and priced at around $10 million. Officials contend that the vast majority of China’s emergent ivory trade is legal, but critics say the spike in demand for legally traded ivory has increased smuggling — a notion bolstered by recent busts.

Environmentalists and experts are reluctant to level any criticism at the local government or border patrol for the problem. In fact, most won’t discuss it openly at all. But those who do say the local and central governments are increasingly aware this is a problem that must be dealt with. The question, they say, is whether officials will step up enforcement and clamp down corruption on the borders quickly and efficiently enough to save the species that China gobbles up.

Groups like Fang’s Green Eyes have taken to working within the system, depending on volunteer armies of college students and young workers to police local restaurants and markets and report violations to the border police. But Fang admits that full-scale reform is needed to change the trafficking and demand. China managed to save the Great Panda from the brink of extinction, and it now has the money and resources to save less symbolic species.

“Right now, wild animals are a dead subject in China,” Fang said. “Maybe in another 10 years, things will be different.”

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