A NEWS story about 54 kinds of wild animals permitted to be served at restaurants across the country has aroused wide debate.
"Eat, eat to death!" an Internet user wrote in a message posted on the BBS. "Have people already forgotten the lessons of SARS?"
Only days after the news, an outbreak of plague in western China's Qinghai Province killed eight people. The plague was caused by the killing and eating of marmots. Again it aroused people's doubts about the safety of eating wild animals.
"Eating wild animals bears much higher health risks than other animals normally eaten for food," said a spokesman surnamed Zhou from the Wild Animal Protection Centre (WAPC) of the Shanghai Forestry Administration.
He explained that the news media had mistaken the message of the notice from the State Forestry Administration (SFA). "We are against the practice of eating any wild animal at any time," he said.
The notice, he explained, provided different guidelines for the eating of wild animals compared with domesticated ones. "Wild animals are divided into several types: State-level protected, local-protected, and others. In many parts of the country, some animals such as deer and foxes have been raised for human consumption for generations. The techniques for raising these animals is quite mature in these places."
Many local governments encourage farmers to raise these animals because of the high financial return on the investment. For example, the same civet cats thought to have caused the original outbreak of the SARS virus in Guangdong Province last year have also been widely raised in Shaanxi Province without the same outcome.
"The problem with civet cats is not that they are born with the virus, but simply that they are susceptible to catching the virus. Examinations have shown that although civet cats in Guangdong carried the virus, those in Shaanxi did not," Zhou said.
Animal farmers used to meet with obstacles in taking their products to the market, because they were classified as wild animals according to the previous regulations. New regulations changed this and made the animal farmers job much easier.
"The State Forestry Administration issued a new system, requiring domesticated animals to bear a special mark so as to be distinct from wild ones," Zhou said.
This makes the administration more reasonable, and broadens the channel for animal product exploitation. "That makes trade of all unmarked animals illegal," Zhou said.
But like fakes in the fashion market, fake marks can be added on wild animals caught illegally by poachers. People are concerned that the attempt to regulate the administration of animal farming will actually result in more illegal trade.
"How can we stop animal cultivators from mixing wild animals with domesticated ones?" asked a web user. "Animals without vaccination going to the dinner table may cause a terrible outcome."
The 54 kinds of wild animals now legally available at restaurants include spotted deer, foxes, roe deer, pheasants, and ostrich. Wild frogs and snakes are officially still illegal, although these two are very popular with Shanghai diners.
Wild frogs and snakes have been banned from restaurants since the SARS epidemic last year, but recently they have begun to return to the table. They may not appear on official printed menus, but when diners request them many popular restaurants in town will provide them, such as Merrylyn and Xiao Nanguo.
Most of the snakes and frogs in the market are wild. "To raise domesticated snakes costs too much, as they grow too slowly," Zhou said. "A snake has to grow a few years before it reaches a marketable weight."
Some wild animals which are protected in Shanghai are not in other parts of China, which means Shanghai restaurants can evade local bans by claiming the animals were imported from outside the city. "We can interfere if the frogs are from Shanghai's Nanhui or Fengxian, but once we caught a seller with frogs from East China's Qingdao," Zhou said. "He even had a licence from the local forestry administration."
China's 10-year-old national Wild Animal Protection Law is currently in the process of being amended, which may help solve this kind of problem in the future.
But for now the illegal trade of wild animals still happens in the city. "It is migrating season and some people are catching wild geese in Nanhui District and selling them to restaurants in downtown Shanghai," Zhou said.
The traditional Chinese mentality believes that eating wildlife is better for the human body than eating domesticated animals. Some animals famous for their use as sexual aphrodisiacs, fertility enhancers, and health tonics are so popular in China that they are imported from overseas in large amounts. These include tortoise, abalone and shark's fin. China's importation of turtles has actually affected the natural resource balance of other countries, resulting inpublic protests by their residents.
An official surnamed Hou from the Municipal Veterinarian Inspection and Administration said that because it is impossible to eliminate traditional beliefs, the illegal wild animal trade will also be difficult to stop.
However, there are some positive signs of change in popular attitudes. Last year the WAPC held a campaign for local restaurant chefs to pledge against making dishes from wild animals. Restaurant diners, at least briefly intimidated by the SARS outbreak, have also started to realize the health risks. A recent newspaper survey showed that eight out of 10 people said they would not order wild animal dishes in restaurants.
Alert for virus
The SFA's notice concerning the 54 different kinds of wild animals is aimed at projecting effective administration of the market, but the sanitary inspection goes to another institution.
The health risk remains, even for domesticated animals. "Even for regular food meat, the examination is not always strict. On many occasions only spot testing is done," Hou said.
New viruses continue to develop, along with science. "It is hard to tell. Bird flu used to be very common in China, but nobody expected it to change and infect other species," Zhou said. "We just can't offer detailed statistics on the risk of eating wild animals."