28 October 2016
Pieces of pangolins (right) and other exotic creatures aren't difficult to come by for mainland Chinese. Photo: Brendon Hong
Pieces of pangolins (right) and other exotic creatures aren't difficult to come by for mainland Chinese. Photo: Brendon Hong

Don’t Eat This: Pangolins (and tigers, rhinos, manta rays …)

Exclusive tiger feasts where the jungle cat is butchered before the guests — for grotesque authenticity, maybe? — are hosted in secret locations in China where seats are reserved for the nouveau riche and government officials.

State-run tiger farms groom the big cats for slaughter, then state-owned breweries dump the skeletons into vats of liquor to make tiger bone wine or lion bone wine that appeals to an illogical love of exotic foodstuffs.

The tincture’s supposed health benefits are rooted in ancient texts that should have been burned long ago. A filthy but legal lion-hunting trade is, in turn, encouraged in South Africa.

Gills harvested from manta rays are sold by the sack in Guangzhou.

Vanity spurs the senseless killing of African elephants for their tusks. The same ego, paired with the demand for powdered rhino horn, drives the beasts’ extinction.

Profits, of course, are ludicrously high.

The world’s most heavily trafficked animal is the pangolin, a scaly ant-eater that some twisted Chinese gourmands have been after for years. The little beasts have shown up in cages in mainland China, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and Burma and can sell for over 3,000 yuan (US$455) per kilogram.

Private kitchens set up specifically to serve Chinese tourists charge much more to carve out an entire menu — the scales are separated from the flesh, pulverized, and cooked with herbs to make soup; the carcass, cleared of innards, is stewed whole, so diners can recognize what they’re eating. Proprietors play up the secrecy of the experience.

Even as her business partner roughly unloaded a 100 pound tortoise into a weak cage, she insisted that they no longer sell “strange things, nothing but pets”.

In 2014, a man was involved in a traffic accident in Bangkok. When police arrived at the scene, they found his car stuffed with more than 100 pangolins on their way to becoming dinner. It was a fortunate bust.

Seizures were being made in China, too. Nearly 1,000 smuggled pangolins were nabbed by Chinese authorities in Zhuhai, Guangdong province, in May that year, and a further 457 in Guangzhou four months later.

Conservative estimates say 10,000 pangolins are smuggled each year, but exact numbers are impossible to pin down.

The smuggling of pangolins remains resilient. TRAFFIC, an international conservation organization, released a report Dec. 31 pointing out how easy it is to find pangolins for sale in Mong La, a Burmese vice town built by Chinese businessmen for Chinese tourists. Last summer, each pangolin scale cost 20 yuan.

Some call pangolin meat a delicacy. Other visitors claim they’re after the scaled things for health reasons — to nourish kidneys, to cure asthma, to prevent cancer. Never mind that none of this is backed up by scientific research.

There’s good reason for the average Chinese citizen to be worried about his or her health. Even the Chinese Communist Party admitted in 2013 that mainland China contains 600 “cancer villages”. The exact definition of a “cancer village” was not provided by Beijing, but at least it wasn’t sugar-coating the situation.

The country’s cyclical airpocalypse tunes the skies of metropolitan and industrial China to the shade of a dead analog television channel, though it also inspired Chai Jing’s hard-hitting but politically inconvenient documentary, Under The Dome: Investigating China’s Haze. The CCP let it live online for a week before ordering video hosting services to take it down.

Smoking might eventually kill one-third of young Chinese men. Three-quarters of stroke patients in China have hypertension. Diagnoses of heart and lung disease are climbing. Metal pollution warps skin, flesh, sinew, bone.

You get the idea — mainland China doesn’t exactly induce great health.

Yet the fantastical, costly reliance on endangered species as something to replenish the life blood of a nation is not only backward. It’s absurd.

Outright bans can’t fix this problem, but mindsets are changing, even if the pace is glacial. A series of awareness campaigns by the likes of basketball great Yao Ming, actress Li Bingbing and even Britain’s Prince William have made waves in Chinese media and left their marks in the public consciousness.

Is that enough? Probably not, but it’s as good a first step as any.

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Parts of some endangered animals can fetch more than their weight in semiprecious stones. Photo: Brendon Hong

They may look unappetising, but some mainland Chinese swear by the medicinal efficacy of certain parts of exotic animals. Photo: Brendon Hong

Thai vendors know there is a reliable demand for exotic animal parts from mainland Chinese. Photo: Brendon Hong

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