Why conservation is still not taken seriously by cadres in southern China

Rampant demand for rare wildlife as food is driving a clandestine trade often aided with the complicity of law enforcement

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 November, 2013, 4:02am
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 November, 2013, 5:57am

A year ago, the country was shocked by the news that hundreds of thousands of wild birds were being poached along their migratory route on the border of Guangdong and Hunan .

This spawned a series of investigative reports from media outlets across the country to uncover how these birds were ending up - through a thriving underground industry - on the dinner plates of Guangdong residents who were "crazy about wild tastes" - wild animals, migratory birds, and even domestic cats and dogs.

This week, it was revealed that a favourite delicacy of Guangdong gourmets, the yellow-breasted bunting, is now officially as rare as the giant panda.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature this week revised the status of the migratory birds, also known as rice birds by Guangdong diners, from "vulnerable" to "endangered". The bird was rated of "least concern" for extinction only 12 years ago.

The Hong Kong Bird Watching Society warned that the species might be wiped out within a decade if the rampant trapping and consumption of the birds in southern China did not stop.

On the same day the news was announced, authorities in Zhanjiang , a city in the south of the province, suspended the director of the Leizhou forestry bureau for failing to stop rampant poaching that had turned the Leizhou Peninsula into "a hell for migratory birds".

Forestry authorities in Dongguan, the Pearl River Delta city where eating the birds is popular, vowed this week to launch an inspection blitz until the end of the year to crack down on trading and eating wild birds.

Unfortunately, the plight of the yellow-breasted bunting failed to stir as much public attention as last year's news about the migratory birds, either because the bunting is such an ordinary looking bird or because the public have become inured to such stories over recent years.

Under Chinese law, it is illegal to poach and trade wild animals or damage their habitat. But in practice, violations are rife due to lax enforcement.

In what has become a routine, Chinese media occasionally expose wildlife poaching, and local governments respond with short-lived crackdowns. But as soon as the public anger fades, the trapping, transport and trade of wildlife returns.

The only thing that has really changed it that journalists now struggle to find new angles to grab the public's attention.

State broadcaster CCTV, working with grass-roots animal welfare NGOs, recently reported on trapping on the Leizhou Peninsula, a crucial stopover for birds as they migrate south.

CCTV footage showed bird hunters setting up three-metre- high nets, made with transparent nylon filaments, that ran for hundreds of metres.

Such traps are a common sight on the peninsula every year from June to September. Birds flying into the nets have no chance of escape as their feet become entangled in the fine threads.

Hunters also set up hides in the forest to shoot larger birds, such as eagles, with rifles, according to the CCTV report.

A deputy chief of the Leizhou forestry bureau told CCTV that they were not able to identify the owners of the nets and therefore had never prosecuted anyone.

The reply is typical of the way local law enforcers, whether from the forestry bureau or police, try to justify their negligence.

The officers also argued that poaching was out of hand because public demand was huge, and that most of the birds consumed in Guangdong were actually killed in other provinces and shipped back to the cities.

They also claimed they could find no stalls selling the wild birds or other animals when they inspected fresh markets, making wildlife protection a mission impossible.

But the question remains, do Guangdong authorities take their duty to protect rare wildlife seriously? Probably not. An animal protection volunteer in Shenzhen said many government officials themselves were routine diners at such "wild taste" restaurants.

Earlier media investigations found that law enforcement officials had protected market stall owners who sold contraband wildlife, tipping them off ahead of the raids.

If such practices continue, the yellow-breasted bunting is doomed to extinction, which will be to the shame of Guangdong diners.

Real change will only occur when authorities show they truly are serious about law enforcement