Part of the answer can be found in the Herbal Encyclopedia, a dictionary of traditional Chinese medicine compiled some four centuries ago that lists 461 animals with organs that purportedly have curative powers. They include the rapidly vanishing tiger and the unfortunate pangolin. According to the dictionary, pangolin scales can be "used to cure tumefaction [swelling], promote blood circulation and help breast-feeding mothers produce milk." If he wanted a more up-to-date answer, Jema'ah could also have asked Wei Hong, a Guangdong native in his mid-30s who developed a taste for pangolin meat when his father bought some 20 years ago in the hope of curing a skin disease. With the meat now selling at an exorbitant $100 a kilogram, Wei, a journalist, must depend on others to indulge his taste for the exotic. He got lucky in January when he attended a dinner thrown by an executive at a large state-owned company. "They steamed the pangolin with boiled mineral water instead of normal water," he recalls. "The meat tasted really fresh, light and delicious."
China's forests once teemed with pangolin. But the reproductive capacity of the slow-moving mammal is no match for Chinese appetites, and pangolins have been all but eradicated on the mainland. Now gourmets, traditional medicine practitioners and businessmen looking to show off their wealth rely on the likes of Jema'ah. But even in distant Sumatran forests, the pangolin is growing harder to find. "I used to catch big ones" of up to 20 kilograms, Jema'ah says. "But the biggest I catch these days are eight kilos."
Pangolin are not the only species being driven toward extinction across Asia by China's demand for exotic, edible wildlife. "As purchasing power in China grows, demand has just exploded," says James Compton, who runs the Southeast Asia office of TRAFFIC, the most prominent group fighting the illegal wildlife trade worldwide. Tim Redford, a Bangkok-based researcher for the conservation group WildAid, estimates that between 1% and 10% of smuggled animals are seized by government officials in efforts to combat an illegal industry worth billions of dollars annually. Between 1999 and 2003, Chinese authorities alone seized 18,850 live endangered wild animals, including lizards, pythons, turtles and rare fish. The slaughter is so extensive in Asia that traditional sources of supply have all but dried up for the most popular animals, and traders are forced to go farther afield to secure their prey. Poachers looking to fill orders for the popular pig-nosed turtle, which is prized both as a pet and for its meat, have to venture as far as the remote Indonesian province of Papua. Those pursuing live reef fish, a Chinese delicacy particularly popular in booming southern China, have appeared in the Solomon Islands and on the island of Mauritius off the coast of Africa.
A thorough and detailed list of animals that are endangered—and thus banned in all trade—already exists in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which was established in 1975. But huge profits, widespread corruption, underfunding of enforcement agencies and a lack of political will mean that the bans enacted in the treaty are often ineffective, conservationists say. "It's a very pessimistic situation," Redford says gloomily. Evidence collected by WildAid suggests that increased seizures in recent years aren't so much evidence of more vigilance by governments as a sharp growth in the trade itself. A recent study by Conservation International concluded that worldwide, less than 1% of natural resource crimes result in punishment or sanctions. Even when lawbreakers are caught, the study pointed out, existing laws provide very little deterrence when compared to the potential profits. In the Philippines, for example, illegal fishing using dynamite and cyanide in the Calamian Islands earns fishermen an average of $70.57 per trip. The potential fine if they are caught: 9¢.
A longtime wildlife dealer in the Sumatran city of Bengkulu sums up the problems facing enforcement officers in the region: "We never have to worry about the police when transporting animals. Most don't even know or care that it's considered a crime," he says with a laugh. "And the ones who do are already in the business and making money themselves." The combination of soaring demand and lax enforcement is leading to a potentially catastrophic situation for the region's wildlife, activists say. "At the current rate there is a very good chance that we will lose a lot of species before we even know where they are or anything about them," says TRAFFIC's Compton.
China is not the only culprit, of course. Nations such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam all have thriving underground markets in wildlife products. And dealers from America and Europe travel the region to stock up on snakes, geckos, flying lizards and other exotic pets. But the sheer scale of demand from China makes everything else pale into insignificance. Up to 80% of the illegal wildlife smuggled out of Southeast Asia is headed for China, says Steve Galster, who heads WildAid's Bangkok office. Illegal traders have had to adapt to the changed marketplace. "I had to take a crash course in Mandarin," laughs Hendrawan, an affable young Indonesian who runs a sprawling wildlife processing facility in South Sumatra. "My family is Chinese but we don't speak it at home, so when business began to go through the roof a few years ago, I had to take lessons."
Hendrawan stands in the slaughtering yard surrounded by piles of yellow and green intestines, the concrete floor awash with blood. On the right, a group of men squat on the floor in a row, holding a four-meter reticulated python. Even in the dim light of the slaughtering shed, the crisscross pattern of green, yellow, henna and black stripes that gave the snake its name glows with vivid life. The men flip the wriggling creature over, exposing its white underbelly. With practiced ease the python is slit open and gutted, then flung into a corner amidst the hoses and plastic buckets full of blood to await skinning, its vibrant colors already fading.
Other workers are packing skinned and eviscerated water monitors into cardboard boxes marked "Frozen Fish." The boxes are stacked onto hand trolleys and rolled over to one of several refrigerated containers lined up next to each other. One worker swings open the door, releasing a frigid blast into the humid tropical air. Inside, hundreds of other boxes stacked from floor to ceiling are visible. "We can send one or two containers out a week," Hendrawan says. Chances of interception on the way to buyers are small. In 2001, for example, China banned all direct imports of live freshwater turtles from Indonesia in an attempt to stem the flow, notes Compton of TRAFFIC. The main effect was to force dealers to find alternate air routes through second countries like Malaysia, he says, or increase their reliance on the porous land borders. "We pack a layer of legal turtles on top, then put thousands of illegals underneath," says the Bengkulu dealer. "And often it's as easy as just putting a false label on the boxes. The customs officers in China must think their countrymen eat an awful lot of fish."
One way or another, shipments of endangered species to China will inevitably start to decline. In a worst-case scenario, supply will simply dry up as animal populations shrink. Right now, the Chinese "take everything we have," says Hendrawan, who runs the reptile abattoir. "They always ask for more, but snakes are getting harder and harder to find, especially the pythons. The minimum size is 2.5 meters. It used to be we could find many of even 7 and 8 meters but now we are happy with 4 meters." WildAid's Galster says a better solution is to eliminate demand. "If we could get the Chinese public to stop buying and consuming this stuff," he says, "it would have a huge positive impact."
But eating exotic animals and using them for ancient medicines are practices deeply rooted in Chinese culture. There have been fleeting signs of change. In June, the soon-to-open Hong Kong Disneyland took shark's fin soup off the menu following public protests over the damage that widespread consumption of the popular Chinese dish was doing to global shark populations. During the 2003 SARS crisis, wildlife activists dared to hope—briefly—that real change was possible. Scientists concluded that SARS had passed from wild civet cats to humans, most likely because the civets are a popular winter dish in China's ye wei or "wild taste" restaurants, which specialize in exotic meats. To safeguard public health, China's wild animal markets were closed, and ye wei restaurants emptied out as officials strictly enforced existing laws with frequent inspections and fines.
But within four months, the markets were open again. Now, two years after SARS, the wildlife trade is back in full swing, albeit more discreetly than before. Take the Guangzhou Snake Bird Animal Fair Market, the largest animal market in southern China. While many of the market's sellers appeared to be idling away their time one recent day, playing mahjong or smoking, their mobiles rang regularly as restaurants or familiar customers placed orders. "Now deals are usually carried out at dawn or dusk to avoid government inspectors," says Lao Xu, who sells hunting tridents and fermenting jars at the market. "If you want any wild animal, from Brazil turtles to pangolin, I can arrange for it to be delivered to your designated restaurant within several hours."
In a twisted way, the animals may yet get their revenge. AIDS is now believed to have passed from apes to humans through the consumption of chimpanzee meat. SARS killed 774 people in late 2002 and 2003. A recent report by the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society warns that similar outbreaks of exotic and virulent viruses may become more common as contact between wild animals and humans in the trade (estimated in the report at 1 billion contacts last year) increases and hunters venture into remote jungle areas in pursuit of wildlife. "Outbreaks resulting from wildlife trade have caused hundreds of billions of dollars of economic damage globally," the report notes, adding that because it is centered around a series of well-known hubs, containing the trade would not be particularly hard. There are some signs that the message is finally sinking in, says Compton of TRAFFIC. "There's more political will out there to do something about this issue than there ever has been before," he says, noting that the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations agreed in May to a five-year plan to combat threats to the region's biodiversity. "Now it remains to be seen if they'll commit the resources to back that up, put their money where their mouths are." Last week, amid an outbreak of avian flu in Indonesia that has sickened 20 and killed two, the U.S. State Department announced the formation of an international coalition to lobby Asian governments to tighten the screws on wildlife smugglers. Asia can only hope that it doesn't take a deadly pandemic to save the pangolin.