Civets and badgers and bats -- ye wei

Sunday, June 1, 2003

GUANGZHOU, China -- The civet cats are gone from their cages at the market, replaced by ducks and rabbits. The snakes, bats, badgers and anteater-like pangolins are missing, too.

For years, the hundreds of stalls at Chatou Wild Animal Food Market in China's southern business capital of Guangzhou were a snapping, hissing zoo of exotic, endangered wildlife destined for the plates of the most adventurous diners.

Then came SARS and the discovery that civets and some other small animals carry the virus that has killed more than 600 people on China's mainland and in Hong Kong. Authorities in Guangdong province, which includes Guangzhou, ordered an end to the wildlife trade this week and told farms raising exotic species to quarantine their animals.

Some traders have been detained, and violators are threatened with fines of up to $12,000.

Trying to prevent SARS

"These are the rules. What can we do?" said vendor He Dawei, who removed the Chinese characters for "wildlife" from the sign on his stall. "They say they'll arrest you if you don't comply."

Diners in southern China long have prized exotic meats killed on the spot -- a practice criticized by doctors as unhygienic and by animal activists as encouragement to poach endangered species.

On Saturday, China announced four new SARS deaths and a single new case -- all in Beijing. The city also said it was cutting the number of hospitals set aside to treat SARS from 16 to seven, encouraged by a decline of more than 90 percent in new cases in May.

Hong Kong reported four more SARS deaths, including that of a doctor, and three new cases.

Also Saturday, the World Health Organization removed Singapore from its list of countries affected by the SARS virus, saying it was 20 days -- twice the virus's maximum incubation period -- since the last locally acquired case was placed in isolation.

Singapore has reported a total of 206 cases, including 31 deaths.

Wild cuisine

Worldwide, SARS has killed at least 764 people and infected at least 8,300.

Guangdong, where the world's first SARS case was recorded in November, has not reported a new one in more than a week. Guangzhou has largely recovered from the panic that prompted residents to don surgical masks and shun crowds.

Chinese call wildlife dishes "ye wei" -- literally, "wild taste" -- and say they boost virility and strengthen immunity to disease.

Even in urban Hong Kong, conservationists say 30 percent of the population has eaten wildlife at some time.

The offbeat cuisine includes dishes such as "dragon and tiger head" -- actually a snake and house-cat casserole.

Fox, boar, raccoon, dog -- name an animal and it might be on the menu. Many are listed by China as endangered species, meaning it should be illegal to catch them, but enforcement is lax.

The dishes are expensive, too. Civet, a mammal related to the mongoose, can fetch $10 a pound -- a princely sum in China, where the average urban worker makes only about $700 a year.

But diners in prosperous Guangzhou, at the heart of the export-oriented manufacturing region of the Pearl River Delta north of Hong Kong, can afford to indulge.

Demand is so strong that the animals are close to being wiped out in the Tailing nature area in the northern province of Shanxi, a key source for exotic species.

Conservationists wonder how long China can enforce the ban.

"If anything good is coming out of SARS, it's that these markets are being closed down," said Jill Robinson of the Hong Kong-based group Animals Asia.

However, she said, "It's too early to tell whether it will be sustained."

For now, though, Chatou market is forlorn despite the quacking of ducks and clucking of chickens. With few customers in sight, traders play mahjong or watch television, looking suspiciously at a foreign visitor and waving him away when he pulls out a camera.

Forestry agents raided the market twice this week, detaining some traders and seizing a dozen peacocks and other animals, according to merchants and local newspapers.

Restaurants in Guangzhou have been inspected and several have been fined for selling wildlife, the newspaper Information Times said.

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