Wednesday, July 25, 2007
Tracking down the illegal Civet cat
Given its association with the fatal disease, it is no surprise that possession of the cats is now considered illegal in China. So, imagine my surprise when I visited a marketplace this morning around 5:30 a.m., and immediately walked into a flurry of vendors with these strange-looking cats in their cages. As I started to get a closer look, the vendors immediately became apprehensive and started to cover the cages and scurry away. Frankly, our lights and cameras with videographers Neil Hallsworth and Phil Littleton probably didn't help. Still, there was no doubt these were the elusive civet cats and Craig Kirkpatrick from the wilderness conservation group Traffic confirmed it for me. They certainly do look like cats, as the picture shows, but they have a snout that is considerably longer and more pointed. Most remarkably, according to Kirkpatrick, despite their tumultuous history, their consumption continues to grow.
As Craig and I walked around the market, we saw all sorts of exotic wildlife. One back room was completely filled with turtles. There must've been thousands of them. While most of them come from farms in China, Craig deftly pointed out turtles from Burma and Madagascar, both of which are endangered. When I asked the shop owners about a permit for endangered animals, they quickly gave me the brush-off. Craig explained that while it was illegal, his experience had taught him that the police placed a low priority on fighting the crime. There was even a pair of Tibetan vendors who claimed to be selling the paw and bones of a tiger, an extremely coveted and endangered animal. Its bones are believed to cure arthritis and its blood is said to have an almost mystical quality.
There is no question that deeply ingrained in the Chinese culture is consumption of animals, many of which may seem exotic and in some cases are endangered. These marketplaces I visited were huge with thousands of vendors and unimaginable numbers of animals and animal parts from shark fin to bear bile. From poisonous live scorpions to fungus-infected caterpillars. So high is the demand these animals are being brought in from all over the world, sometimes legally and sometimes poached. We were told in no uncertain terms that for the right amount of money, we could get just about anything we wanted.
The demand is fueled by custom, such as the need to serve shark fin at a proper Chinese wedding or turtle at parties for the affluent. Part of the consumption is driven by traditional Chinese medicine, which is dependent on approximately 11,000 different plants and 1,500 different animals. Some of the consumption is driven by plain old curiosity. One thing for certain though is that as our population - mankind -- continues to grow, certain animal species are declining and even disappearing. We are breathlessly consuming many of our planets natural resources.
So, how do we control this consumption in China and other places in the world?
For more on the upcoming CNN documentary Planet in Peril visit CNN.com/planetinperil.
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