No health fears as diners seek wild game on thriving black market

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 February, 2008, 12:00am

Long blamed as a key source of the Sars virus, civet cats and other wild game are still on the menu for many Cantonese five years on. But while they are still available at mainland markets, diners now have to scout for the animals on the black market.

Civet cats are considered a factor in the spread of Sars, and Hong Kong has banned trade in the animal. But their reported link to the killer virus has failed to dent the appetite of some for the animals, tens of thousands of which are still eaten each year in south China, according to the Guangdong forestry police bureau.

Diners and animal traders shrug off any potential risk, insisting the flesh of the wild animal has an exotic flavour and revitalising qualities.

Their enthusiasm is evident at the Dongwang frozen meat wholesale market in Guangzhou's Baoyun district, which at dawn bustles with activity as vendors prepare their offerings of various species of fowl, as well as deer, boar, rabbits, fox, pangolin and civet cats. The market reeks of wildlife waste and death as trucks arrive with exotic animals jammed into cages. As busy as it is, the market is just one of the 37 major wildlife trading hubs in Guangdong.

Animal traders show no concern about eating the wild game. One veteran dealer said the Cantonese had dined on civet cats for more than 2,000 years and continued to do so.

'People slaughter and eat the same way they did before Sars became a household name,' said one veteran dealer.

Although civet cats were blamed by mainland and Hong Kong scientists for being a source of the deadly coronavirus, it was unlikely they were, according to a recent study in Ohio. The study, which came to light last week, said very few people who came into regular contact with civet cats were infected because the animal was not an amplifying force but rather an inheritor of the virus, possibly from humans.

Scientists in Hong Kong and the mainland last week remained sceptical of the new study.

Shenzhen entrepreneur Yang Jingcheng (not his real name) seemed unfazed by suggestions civet cats were dangerous and said he couldn't see the point of banning them and other wild animals from markets.

'Most civet cats available now are raised in farms just like poultry and pigs,' Mr Yang said.

The middle-aged businessman said that, according to traditional Cantonese wisdom, eating wild animals could help combat cancer and rid the body of toxins, and dining on civet cats and pangolins had kept him vigorous, despite his work pressures.

But nutritionist Zheng Jianxian from South China University of Technology said diners may have overstated the wildlife's curative qualities. 'Civet cats provide about as much protein as other meats,' Dr Zheng said.

Winter and early spring are considered the peak season for civet cat sales and authorities have been trying to prevent a new outbreak of Sars in the past three months by clamping down on wild animal black markets across the province. In January 2004, Guangdong banned the trade, killing and eating of civet cats, but demand for the meat continues.

To avoid the crackdown, animal dealers and restaurant owners keep civet cats and other wild game in nearby ramshackle rooms, and diners, who used to select their animal or bird outside the restaurant, have to first phone in an order.

Wildlife protectors say it is hard to change the long-standing tradition of eating wild game, especially civet cats.

'Civet cats are neither a rare species nor covered by animal protection schemes, so it's unlikely trading in the animals can be banned nationwide,' said Fan Zhiyong , director of Beijing-based WWF-China's species programme.

Mr Fan said farmed civet cats presented the same health risks as wild ones because both were unregulated and carried similar viruses.

'Exotic animals aren't inspected by food safety bodies in the way that meats from licensed providers are,' he said.

When Guangdong imposed the ban in 2004 after the Sars outbreak, it offered a 1,000 yuan reward for whistleblowers and authorities oversaw the killing of at least 7,200 captive civet cats in the province that year.

But the ban stops at the provincial border. Insiders say that more than 70 per cent of civet cats available in Guangdong markets are farmed freely in neighbouring provinces, making it difficult for Guangdong to enforce its ban. Last year, the Guangdong forestry bureau seized more than 20,000 wild animals from vendors but the bans and fines haven't deterred civet breeders and dealers who can make healthy profits from the animals.

Civet cat breeder Mo Rumou , from Guangxi , has raised the animals for nine years and most of his stock ends up in stews for Guangdong and Guangxi diners.

'We're eating and living beside civets and all of us are in good health,' he said.

Mr Mo said he had about 200 civet cats on his licensed farm and a mature animal was worth 1,000 yuan or 220 yuan per kg, triple his initial investment.

The price of civet rose during the 1990s as wealth poured into Guangdong, allowing suppliers to restaurants to earn more than 15,000 yuan a month, far more than they could from farming. But many dealers say Sars did batter the civet market and other wild game.

Isobel Zhang, founder of a cat-protection organisation in Shenzhen, said Sars made some Cantonese think twice about eating exotic food. 'More and more young and well-educated people refuse to eat wild game now,' she said.