November 11, 2008

Wildlife Threatened By Chinese Diets, Medicine

Environmentalists reported Wednesday that wild animals are slowly making their way back to the Chinese dinner menu after the lethal SARS virus made some diners cautious. They also said that surging demand for traditional medicine is threatening some plant species.

A survey of six cities, commissioned by the wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic,  found that nearly half of the respondents had consumed wildlife in the past 12 months, either as food or medicine.  The affluent and well-educated Chinese were most likely to prefer a wild snake or turtle.

The group said participants enjoyed eating wildlife because they viewed it as "unpolluted," "special" and with extra nourishing and health powers,

"This consumer demand is increasingly placing the natural environment -- both in China and abroad -- at risk through unsustainable and illegal wildlife trade," said the report.

Roughly 50 percent of the southern Chinese markets monitored by Traffic were also found to be selling wildlife for the pot, mostly reptiles but some birds and mammals as well.  Two of the species for sale are on an international list of 800 critically threatened animals.

In an promising sign, just 3 percent of diners regularly order the most endangered animals, but Traffic said a new approach is required to convince Chinese customers not to consume other wildlife.

According to the report, species in China endangered by their culinary and medicinal popularity include the tiger, pangolin, tiger and Chinese sturgeon.

An deadly outbreak of the SARS virus six years ago that infected 8,000 people globally and killed 800 led to the banishment of the raccoon-like civet, a local gourmet favorite.  

The Traffic survey found that more than half the people that survived the outbreak still worry about the threat of diseases, findings that may hint at a possible tactic in reducing sales of wildlife for the dining table.

"A 'causing a problem to you' approach (e.g. legal liability, deteriorated living environment, hazardous to one's health) instead of a 'be compassionate' approach could have a more immediate effect," the report said.

In a country such as China, where traditional medicine is widely used and has yielded valuable compounds for use in Western medicine, the demand for such treatments could also be just as destructive to natural vegetation and habitats as the quest for food, the report said.

The country's total traditional medicine exports were worth $1.1 billion last year.  Meeting the demands of this market and from the expanding and increasingly wealthy domestic population is straining areas where wild plants are gathered.

Up to 20 percent of medicinal plants and animals are now considered endangered, according to Traffic.  However, only about one-third of China's traditional medicine output is from wild plants.  The remainder is farmed, primarily with good practice, the report said.

* The Patagonian toothfish is commonly sold as: Merluza negra (Spain) Bacalao de profundidad (Spain and Chile) Chilean Sea Bass (US and Canada) Legine (France) Mero (Japan) Patagonian toothfish (UK) Butterfish (Mauritius)


Image 1: The Antarctic Toothfish is so valuable it is sometimes referred to as "White Gold"; better measures are needed to stop those catching toothfish illegally. Courtesy Stuart Hanchet, NIWA, New Zealand

Image 2: Dried plants and animals parts are used in traditional Chinese medicines. In the image are dried lingzhi, snake, turtle plastron, Lou han fruit, and species of ginseng. Courtesy Wikipedia


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