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Hong Kong taste for snake loses its bite

Tam Ying-chin, who works in a snake restaurant plays with a King Cobra destined for the dinner table in Hong Kong
Tam Ying-chin, who works in a snake restaurant plays with a King Cobra destined for the dinner table in Hong Kong  

By Andrew Brown

HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Restaurant owners expected 2001, the auspicious Year of the Snake, to be a good one for delicacies of the serpent variety.

However, Hong Kong's snake trade has been hit hard by the economic downturn and a slump in tourism to the former British colony.

The winter season is when consumers turn to snake meat, but many seem to have lost their appetite for King Cobra and other exotic scaly reptiles.

Suppliers say sales for the last quarter of this year will be 30 percent down on the same period last year.

This comes as sad news for an industry that has seen snake shops boom since Hong Kong recovered from the 1997 economic crisis.

Less demand

Mak Tai Kwong who sells snakes to local hotels and restaurants says there is less demand for snake because of the weak local economy and the fewer tourists traveling to Hong Kong following the September 11th attacks on the United States.

"I've been in this profession since I was a kid. In 50 years I've never seen it this bad," Mak lamented.

In Chinese cuisine, snake broth is favored as a winter dish, it is said to provide vital nourishment to the heart and boosts the metabolism.

In some snake restaurants, the reptile is slaughtered in front of the customer.

Increased prosperity at one time meant that many would splash out on an expensive drink made from snake gall bladders.

The bile, blood and venom are also used in traditional Chinese medicines, while the whole creature is soaked in rice wine to add invigorating power.

Winter dish

Stephen Tsui comes to Hong Kong from his home in mainland China regularly to eat snake dishes.

"To drink this kind of soup is to help you build up your body to resist winter," said Tsui over a bowl of snake and chicken broth at the famous Ser Wong Fung restaurant near Hong Kong's central district.

Many parts of the snake are used in Hong Kong, often sold at prices reflecting the territory's general economic well being.

Sadly snakes aren't warming up the economy. Private consumption is contracting, the Hong Kong property market has declined, and growth has ground to a halt.

The hope is sentiment will change in 2002, before a recovery slips out of reach.

Good wildlife news

The only good news is for the environment.

Hong Kong imports hundreds of thousands of kilos of snake each year, although the majority are not endangered species, conservationists fear that over-harvesting wild snakes could have disastrous consequences for the environment.

The black market for wildlife has grown rapidly in south China with Hong Kong and the Guangzhou area becoming a prime destination for exotic species because prices are higher.

Professional smuggling rings use all kinds of routes, by train, car and air moving wildlife into the area from destinations such as Vietnam and Thailand.




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