HONG KONG––Hope that the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome epidemic of 2002-2003 might permanently close the notorious Chinese live wildlife markets was dealt a setback on July 10, 2003 when 12 government ministries and state administrations jointly announced that legal sales of domesticated wildlife would be “encouraged, guided, and supported.”
The wildlife traffic will be more closely controlled than pre-SARS, the announcement continued.
“Domestication of any wild species will have to be approved by the State Forestry Administration, Ái Hu of the South China Morning Post summarized. “Stricter quarantine measures will be adopted. Those who hunt animals rather than domesticating them will lose their business licenses.
“While the door is open to domestication,” Yi Hu added, “wildlife consumption is still prohibited in restaurants. Informants who see wildlife on menus and report this to the Wildlife Protection Office of the Beijing Forestry Bureau will receive cash rewards.”
The Agricultural Committee of the National People’s Congress lobbied for the new rules in lieu of the total ban on the sale or consumption of wildlife that was requested by conservation organizations and humane groups. The National People s Congress last reviewed wildlife trafficking laws circa 1987.
Seeking a compromise position, a 22-member panel from the Chinese Academy of Sciences had recommended a week earlier at a rare public hearing on proposed regulatory responses to the wildlife traffic that animals should be officially defined as belonging to one of three categories: livestock, domesticated wildlife, and wildlife under strict protection, not to be sold or eaten.
David Fang of the South China Morning Post reported on July 7 that breeding permits would likely be issued for producers of partridges, turtles, and ostriches, and that restaurants would be allowed to sell these species as meat. “Permits would probably not be issued for the breeding and consumption of snakes, sparrows, monkeys, bats, and land tortoises,” Fang hinted, based on information he attributed to an anonymous official of the China Cuisine Association.
Some Beijing snake dealers apparently released their stock in the streets. “Wayward snakes have become such a problem that the city Forestry Bureau has started a snake capture hotline,” said Associated Press.
Hong Kong and Kowloon Snake Merchants Association cofounder Kam Oi-ho told Chan Siu-Sin of the South China Morning Post that 70 snake shops with 600 employees might be forced out of business in Hong Kong and Kowloon alone.
Hong Kong secretary for health, welfare, and food Yeoh Eng-kiong told the Hong Kong legislative council that 6.8 million exotic animals were imported into Hong Kong in 2002. Imported for food were 710,000 turtles, 150,000 lizards, and 60,000 snakes. Seized from 14 illegal traffickers were nine tons of turtles, 850 lizards, and 126 snakes.
Imported as pets were 3.8 million turtles and two million lizards.
Chen Runsheng, secretary-general of the China Wildlife Conservation Association, and Guangdong deputy health chief Wang Zhiqiong in separate statements denounced eating wildlife as a bad habit.
“We have to abolish it,” Chen Runsheng said. “It is not traditional Chinese culture,” contrary to common assertions. “We must develop the industry of protecting wild animals. The industry of eating wild animals will be short-lived.”
Animals Asia Foundation founder Jill Robinson told Lieu Siew Ying of the South China Morning Post that the notion of rapidly domesticating wildlife would prove illusory.
“Domesticating animals takes thousands of years,” Robinson emphasized. “These animals [used as breeding stock for domestication] are going to be stressed, and stressed animals are capable of incubating new viruses,” she pointed out.
Wildlife exporters to China meanwhile joined Chinese breeders, sellers, and importers in vigorous defense of their industry.
Representing more than 50 Taiwanese civet breeders, with more than 30,000 civets, attorney Chang Wen-chia told South China Morning Post Taipei correspondent Joe Tang on June 23, 2003 that he would soon file a $10 million defamation suit against the University of Hong Kong for allegedly misidentifying civets as the source of SARS.
The Agricultural University of China later claimed that tests on civets from seven different mainland locations failed to find the SARS virus, but the University of Hong Kong stood by its previous findings, which were confirmed by the Shenzen Centre for Disease Control before they were publicly announced.
“The consumption of civets is banned in Taiwan, but some breeders have illegally sold them to restaurants. Trade of wild civets is not permitted,” Tang said.
Earlier, the Taiwan civet breeders unsuccessfully applied to the national Council of Agriculture for a subsidy of $57 per animal raised. The Taipei Times reported that civet breeders seeking help from the government bottle-fed cute and cuddly young civets on the one hand, and prepared a rice, wine, and civet recipe for passers-by on the other.
The SARS panic brought crackdowns on wildlife trafficking throughout southern Asia––even in Vietnam, widely believed to have the weakest wildlife law enforcement in the region.
Seizing from smugglers and burning 600 pangolins and 700 monitor lizards in April, Hanoi officials assured Agence France-Presse that the majority were dead when destroyed.
In May, Dak Lak province People s Committee chair Nguyen Van Lang barred state employees from consuming wildlife.
A few days later Quang Binh provincial police seized six Tibetan bears from an illegal bile farm––an apparent first in Vietnam, where the World Wildlife Fund believes 750 bears are tapped for bile in Hanoi alone.
On June 13 the Hanoi government formally ordered all ministries and provinces to stop wildlife trafficking.
Despite parallel crackdowns in every nation bordering on southern China, however, and despite the well-publicized seizures by Chinese police of more than 30,335 wild animals from 991 Guangdong live markets and 6,617 restaurants, wildlife remained available to those who looked for it, wrote Toronto Globe & Mail correspondent Geoffrey York.
York said he found a Miss Chan in Guangzhou offering to sell him “an illegal zoo of civet cats, wild dogs, bats, and pangolins, up the narrow staircase and behind the locked door of her apartment. A big sign openly advertised cobras, vipers, snake blood, snake liver, even snake gallbladder. Her only precaution was to limit the inventory on the street. The authorities seemed indifferent.”
York found the Xinyuan market, the largest of four wildlife markets in Guangzhou, “still filled with the stench of animal urine and blood, the floor littered with corpses of cats, birds, fish, frogs, and rats, with domestic dogs and cats, destined for restaurants, crammed into tiny overcrowded cages.”
York discovered active snake markets at three other locations in Guangzhou and nearby Foshan.
“It’s just like the drug trade,” South China Institute for Endangered Animals researcher Jiang Haisheng said. “It goes underground, and then is hard to control.”
York added that, “People in northern cities such as Beijing are not amused by the peculiar cuisine of the south. Many blame Guangdong s eating habits for causing the spread of SARS, which devastated the economy of Beijing this spring.”
Beijing, as the Chinese capital, gives orders to the nation.
Yet as Guangdong residents have said for centuries, “The mountains are high, and the emperor is far away.”
The SARS outbreak officially ended with 5,327 cases and 348 deaths in China; 1,755 cases and 298 deaths in Hong Kong; and 674 cases and 84 deaths in Taiwan.
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