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Chinese eating exotic animals after SARS scare

Wild animals are climbing back onto Chinese plates after the deadly SARS virus made diners wary, and demand for traditional medicine is threatening some plants, experts say.
/ Source: Reuters

Wild animals are climbing back onto Chinese plates after the deadly SARS virus made some diners wary, and booming demand for traditional medicine is also threatening some plants, environmentalists said.

Nearly half of urbanites had consumed wildlife in the past 12 months, either as food or medicine, with rich and well educated Chinese most likely to tuck into a wild snake or turtle, a survey of urbanites in six cities found.

They enjoyed eating wildlife because they saw it as "unpolluted," "special" and with extra nourishing and health powers, according to a study commissioned by Traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring network.

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

Around half of the southern Chinese markets checked by Traffic were also selling wildlife for the pot, mostly reptiles but some birds and mammals as well. Two species for sale are on an international list of 800 critically threatened animals.

In an encouraging sign, only 3 percent of diners order the most endangered animals, but Traffic said a new approach was needed to persuade Chinese customers not to eat other wildlife.

Species endangered by their culinary and medicinal popularity in China include the pangolin, tiger and Chinese sturgeon, the report said.

Damage to vegetation
An outbreak of the deadly SARS virus six years ago resulted in a local gourmet favorite -- the civet -- being banished to the black market. The raccoon-like animal was blamed for spreading SARS, which infected 8,000 people globally and killed 800.

And more than half the people surveyed still worried about the threat of diseases, hinting at one possible tactic in the battle to cut 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.

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

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

Up to a fifth of medicinal plants and animals are now considered endangered, Traffic said.

But only about one third of China's traditional medicine output is from wild plants, the rest are farmed -- most with good practice.