For China's Newly Rich, The More Endangered, The Better

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A policeman stands in front of a pile of ivory before it is crushed during a public event in Dongguan, south China's Guangdong province, Jan. 6, 2014.

Amid an ever-widening wealth gap, China's emerging nouveau riche classes are developing a taste for endangered species as a badge of affluence: the more endangered, the better, according to a prominent animal rights campaigner.

China is one of the world's largest consumers of wildlife products, from elephant ivory and shark fin to tiger bone and rhino horn, and animal rights groups have long campaigned to stop the trade in endangered animal parts, both online and offline.

China is currently home to 420 species listed as endangered, including giant pandas, golden monkeys, and the Asiatic black bear, which is commonly exploited for bile for traditional medicine products.

"They eat anything and everything, and it seems that the more endangered an animal they eat, the more of a boost they get to their personal prestige," Grace Ge Gabriel, regional director for China at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), told RFA.

"And this problem has become more and more serious in recent years."

In May, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC) issued a decree to clarify China's laws on the trade in wildlife.

Anyone who eats or buys endangered species or their parts could face a prison term of up to 10 years, official media reported.

Farmed or wild?

According to Ge Gabriel, the use of farmed animals to satisfy demand for medicinal animal parts has confused the general public, in spite of growing awareness of environmental and animal protection issues across the country.

"Some of the big tiger farms in China raise tigers specifically to sell tiger-related products," Ge Gabriel said. "While it's illegal in China to trade in wild tiger parts, the law allows trade in farmed tiger parts."

"This has created a grey area in the market for tiger parts in China, and it has caused a great deal of confusion for consumers, because it's hard for them to be sure whether the tiger products come from wild or farmed animals," she said.

"This has had a bad effect on public education about endangered species."

The lack of public awareness of the effects of certain types of trade has also been exported to other countries, where Chinese demand is blamed for fueling elephant poaching for illegal ivory.

While Nigeria and Angola are home to less than 3,000 elephants in total, according to U.N. figures, the countries also host the two largest public ivory markets, which campaigners say are thronging with buyers from among their hundreds of thousands of expatriate businesspeople.

However, many say the government looks set to clamp down still further on the trade in animal parts.

"The relevant national laws are getting tighter and tighter, and I think the situation for precious, endangered species will improve gradually," Hunan-based current affairs blogger Xiao Shu told RFA.

"Younger people especially these days believe that it's shameful to eat wild and endangered creatures," he said. "So I don't think the market for endangered species will continue to prosper."

Decreased consumption

Whether these changes will be felt in the southern province of Guangdong, where local people are renowned for eating anything that moves, remains to be seen.

But there are signs of decreased consumption of endangered species in recent months, following a decree from President Xi Jinping ordering officials to leave pricey and prestigious dishes off the menu at official banquets.

In January, news that a slaughterhouse in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang was killing around 600 endangered whale sharks annually to meet demand for shark's fin soup and other luxuries prompted an outcry online.

China has a comprehensive set of environmental laws, including high levels of protection on paper for wildlife.

But close ties between business and local governments mean these laws are rarely enforced at the local level, according to environmental groups.

Nevertheless, reports in China's tightly controlled state media have shown that the consumption of shark's fin soup fell by around 70 percent in the second half of last year, as such dishes are publicly regarded as an indicator of official corruption.

Reported by Wen Jian for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.


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