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China's Dangerous Wild Tastes

Vast markets in wild animals can lead to environmental destruction and, in an age of newly emerging diseases such as SARS, public health disasters.
 
 
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A while back at Lang Son, a northern Vietnamese town on the Chinese border, I watched as hundreds of Vietnamese carried baskets of monkeys, pangolins, snakes and a variety of exotic birds in rattan cages on their backs. On the way back, their baskets held a different fare: electric fans, water pumps, rice cookers, farm tools, TVs, VCRs, and Chinese-manufactured designers jeans and T-shirts.

As one young man put it, "I can always sell forest animals to China. They buy everything we have. They have a big appetite for wild taste."

In China, these forest creatures -- rare and growing rarer by the minute -- are transformed into pills and powders, soups and stews, and traditional medicine sold at specialty shops. The penchant for ye wei -- literally, "wild taste" -- is paradoxically as unstoppable as China's great leap forward toward capitalism and modernity.

But ye wei depletes the forest of animals, and it causes diseases. SARS, which killed hundreds of people in China and left 5,300 Chinese sick with pneumonia earlier this year (and nearly brought China to an economic standstill) is believed by scientists to be linked to the civet cat -- a favorite Chinese ye wei dish, preferably in a stew.

China can jail dissidents, control public information and put a man in orbit while boasting a phenomenal 9 percent economic growth rate, but it cannot control its own people's appetite. In fact, last August the Chinese Forestry Commission lifted a four-month ban on the trade and consumption of exotic wild animals, despite warnings from the World Health Organization (WHO). China included one stipulation: all of the 54 exotic species the Chinese are again allowed to eat, including the civet, must be farm-raised, not caught in the wild. But differentiating between a farm-raised forest animal and a captured one in China is as difficult as separating pirated Britney Spears CDs from legitimate ones. Besides, China's porous borders with its Southeast Asian neighbors will always insure a steady flow of fresh exotic meat.

Overall statistics on the amount of wildlife being consumed are not known, but there are some local guesses. The China Wildlife Conservation Association estimates that in Guangdong province alone, 50 tons of wild frogs, 1,000 tons of snakes and several thousand tons of wild birds are consumed in special stores and restaurants each year, not to mention badgers, bats, pangolins and other mammals.

Wild taste is valued because of its increasing rarity and because of an old belief system that holds that eating wild animals is key to health, especially for virility and a strong immune system. But nature is not always so benevolent. Nature can also hurt -- or, as some environmentalists argue, fight back against human encroachment -- with deadly diseases like ebola, AIDS, and now SARS, all of which are suspected by many to have originated among people who ate or handled bush animals.

Odd that the fanciful Chinese longing for "wild taste" is so enormous in a country otherwise known for its practicality. China's one-child policy has admirers in some quarters, and even the Communist Party has adopted an "If you can't beat them, make them join you" attitude, inviting even multimillionaire capitalists within its ranks.

But for humans, practicality goes out the window when it comes to eating habits. According to Jared Diamond in his brilliant book, "Guns, Germs and Steel," one acre of farmland can feed 10 to 100 times more people than hunting and gathering on one wildlife-rich acre. Wild animals that haven't already been tamed thousands of years ago, Diamond says, will not be tamed now, because of their relatively low nutritional value compared to the time and resources necessary for domestication.

Yi wei , then, is a culture of nostalgia, a way of life borne of necessity long ago and showing renewed vigor in a modernizing China. Those monkeys sitting on the Vietnamese porters' backs are there because a growing army of nouveaux riches with dispensable income want them. A pound of civet cat sells for around $6, or 10 percent of an average worker's monthly salary; monkey meat brings three times more. In fact, the Vietnamese porters I saw wouldn't dream of eating their catch. What one's grandfather used to eat out of necessity to supplement his poor diet is now worth the grandson's monthly wages -- and belongs to Rolex-wearing businessmen in cosmopolitan Hong Kong or Shanghai who wouldn't know the first thing about finding monkeys in the forest.

I once sat on a stool made from the leg of an elephant in a rich Chinese merchant's home in Hong Kong. The man was terribly proud that he could afford such a thing: Four stools that once kept some elephant in Thailand moving, with their bristling hair and skin and nails intact. The perverse décor made me shift uneasily in my seat, but I liked the man; he was genuinely warm. But I fear he typifies the sentiment of this region, one that says, "If this is the last tiger penis I should own it, make a soup out of it and drink it with my friends." His lifestyle is not only detrimental to wildlife, but, with SARS threatening an encore performance, to his own health as well.

Andrew Lam, an editor at PNS, is a journalist and short story writer.