Wednesday, July 25, 2007
Tracking down the illegal Civet cat
Possesion of Civet cats in China is illegal
The first time I heard of a civet cat was when I was in Iraq as an embedded reporter in the spring of 2003. Every now and then we would be able to dial in some radio news coverage from the desert and I still remember hearing one report about a new respiratory disease called SARS. The reporter went on to say that it had possibly been traced back to the consumption of civet cats in the Guangdong province of China. In fact, at the time it was considered a delicacy on the menu at several local restaurants in the city of Guangzhou.

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
Dr. Gupta,

Regarding civets, SARS and hygeine, what do you think of the likelihood of SARS transmission viz-a-viz Kopi Luwak coffee? I've embedded the link to the page on Wiki regarding this.
Hi Dr Sanjay Gupta,
I saw your report on AC360. You looked a little tired, and I would not be surprised if you were sickened by looking at a lot of animals for food in that early morning market. I think China has brought you endless surprises. Yes, it is a culture, but I cannot accept that they eat every kind of animal including wildlife, though I know not so many people have a chance to eat tiger or bear in China. Probably they don’t know they themselves have consumed endangered animals, and, sad to say, nobody can stop doing that.
That’s a big question you ask, and one that has no simple answer. The Chinese view animals as something to consume - there only for man’s use. To a certain extent we feel the same in Western culture given the fact that we eat cows, pigs, etc. They simply make no distinction between a cow and a dog. In order for this to change within China the people and the government have to change the way they view animals. Perhaps this happens through diplomatic relations, perhaps it happens through education. The West can ban imports of products containing endangered species, and send a clear message to China that we don’t condone inhumane treatment and killing or breeding of endangered animals. We can support animal welfare organizations who work to protect animals (WSPA, WWF, etc.). We can ensure that TCM in the West does not involve the use of animals if restrictions are put on it.

Overall, people have to realize that animals have a place on this planet, and it’s not just for us to use them.
Hi Dr. Gupta,

As a physician now I think back about when my parents told me to eat almonds before a test and laugh. We live in an era of evidence based medicine, where standard of care is dictated by proof in effectivness in achieving desired outcomes. No such articles exist with almonds. Try telling my parents that, they will think you are "not a real doctor". So when I took my boards (after medical school) I ate a few almonds with a chuckle. Who knows, I thought.

Trying to change such cultural practice, I suspect, will be next to impossible. As always, great article.
What is Dr. Gupta talking about when he says "we" are consuming many of our planet's animals? Trust me...I have never eaten a civic cat (or any kind of cat or dog), turtle, tiger, bear, whale blubber. Why not focus attention on the countries that continue this insane practice like Japan which insists harvesting whales for "scientific purposes" then mysteriously the same whales end up for sale in the groceries. Or the Chinese which are pretty much single handedly responsible for harvesting rhino horns, tiger, bear gallbladders, paws and other bazaar animal parts.
I believe these practices will diminish as the world's poor move into urban areas seeking education, jobs and opportunity. I was just in China myself last November and was astonished at the economic growth. As these countries become more "West ernized", (for better or worse),these culteral practices will be replaced by those learned from new experiences. Hopefully, some of these practices that are abhorent to our western senses will be come the stuff of legends before these rare populations are extinct!Then we can worry about extinction of the human race as the result of the proliferation of fast food!
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