At Lang Son, a northern Vietnamese town on the Chinese border, I
watched as hundreds of Vietnamese carried baskets of monkeys,
pangolins, snakes, and a variety of exotic birds in rattan cages. On
the way back, their baskets held electric fans, water pumps, rice
cookers, farm tools, TVs, VCRs, jeans, and T-shirts.
As one young man put it, “I can always sell forest animals to China. They buy everything we have. They have a big appetite for wild taste.”
In China, these forest creatures are transformed into pills and powders, soups and stews, and traditional medicine sold at specialty shops. The penchant for “ye wei”—literally, “wild taste”—is seemingly unstoppable.
Ye wei not only depletes the forest of animals, but causes diseases. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed hundreds of people in China and left 5,300 Chinese sick with pneumonia earlier this year (and nearly brought China to an economic standstill) is believed by scientists to be linked to the civet cat—a favorite Chinese ye wei dish, usually served in a stew.
China can put a man in orbit while boasting a nine percent economic growth rate, but it cannot control its own people’s appetite. Last August, the Chinese Forestry Commission lifted a four-month ban on the trade and consumption of exotic wild animals, despite warnings from the World Health Organization (WHO). China included one stipulation: all of the 54 exotic species the Chinese are again allowed to eat, including the civet, must be farm-raised, not caught in the wild. But differentiating between a farm-raised forest animal and a captured one in China is difficult, and China’s porous southern border ensures a steady flow of fresh exotic meat.
Overall statistics on the amount of wildlife being eaten are not known, but there are some local guesses. The China Wildlife Conservation Association estimates that in Guangdong province alone, 50 tons of wild frogs, 1,000 tons of snakes, and several thousand tons of wild birds are consumed in stores and restaurants each year, not to mention badgers, bats, pangolins, and other mammals.
Wild taste is valued for its increasing rarity, and because of an old belief system that holds that consuming wild animals is healthy, strengthening virility and the immune system. But ye wei can also be a vector for deadly diseases like Ebola, AIDS, and now SARS, all of which are suspected to have originated among people who ate or handled bush animals.
Odd that the fanciful Chinese longing for wild taste is so enormous in a country otherwise known for its practicality. But for humans, practicality goes out the window when it comes to eating habits. According to Jared Diamond in his book Guns, Germs and Steel, an acre of land can feed 10 to 100 times more people through farming than through hunting and gathering. Wild animals that haven’t already been tamed thousands of years ago, Diamond says, will not be tamed now, because of their relatively low nutritional value compared to the time and resources necessary for domestication.
Ye wei, then, is a culture of nostalgia, a way of life born of necessity long ago and showing renewed vigor in a modernizing China. Those monkeys sitting on the Vietnamese porters’ backs are there because a growing army of nouveaux riches with disposable income want them. A pound of civet cat sells for around $6, or 10 percent of an average worker’s monthly salary; monkey meat brings three times more.
I once sat on a stool made from the leg of an elephant in a rich Chinese merchant’s home in Hong Kong. The man was terribly proud that he could afford such a thing. The perverse décor made me shift uneasily in my seat. I liked the man: He was genuinely warm. But I fear he typifies the sentiment of this region, one that says, “If this is the last tiger penis, I should own it, make a soup out of it and drink it with my friends.” His lifestyle is not only detrimental to wildlife, but, with SARS threatening an encore performance, to his own health as well.
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