A monkey burger – do you want fries with that?

In Business and Environment, Environment, Ethical and Eco Agriculture, Places, Travel and Retreats by LivingNowLeave a Comment

Some years ago, while travelling in the Amazon, I found myself involved in the rescue of a three-toed sloth which had endangered itself by accidentally wandering into the territory of a carnivorous ocelot. While we were busy trapping and trussing up the unfortunate animal, my local guide asked me if I had ever eaten sloth. Of course I had not, and asked him what it tasted like.

“Oh, just like monkey.” Which left me none the wiser.

Throughout Africa, Asia, South America and the Arctic regions, indigenous people routinely kill and eat native wildlife, but this activity rarely if ever places these species under immediate threat of extinction. (One exception is the Snub-nosed monkey, which only inhabits one island off the coast of Vietnam, and which is still being hunted for food despite its population numbering only about 60.)

However, when Mandrill Baboons, Guenon Monkeys, Duikers (a small antelope) and even chimpanzees and gorilla parts start appearing on dinner tables in Europe and America, it is clear that there is a thriving illegal trade in what is known as the bushmeat market. The duiker antelope seems to be the most popular (probably because it reputedly tastes like farmed venison), and the illegal industry is rapidly becoming an integral part of some third world economies. Glyn Davies, conservation director for the Royal Zoological Society of London, has been quoted as saying: “The bushmeat trade is huge and supports thousands of people in Africa”. What is more, this meat is classed as a luxury food, and therefore fetches far higher prices than even premium cuts of beef, or traditionally expensive game birds, such as pheasant and grouse.

What is most disturbing is that bushmeat markets have thus far been identified in eight cities – Paris, Brussels, London, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Toronto and Montreal – and all of these are in countries which are card-carrying members of CITES. There is a central bushmeat market in each of these cities, illegally importing from Ghana, Gabon and elsewhere, and shifting approximately 6000 tonnes of meat each month, either into selected restaurants, or as clandestine private sales.

CITES stands for the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species, and most western nations have signed up to it. Two notable absentees, until very recently, have been Japan and China. However, Japan’s application has been accepted and July of this year saw the first meeting aimed at deciding whether or not to admit China.

Both Japan and China pose special problems for CITES, because stated government policy often comes into conflict with long-established traditions. I have dealt with the Japanese whaling question in an earlier article, published in the April issue, but the Japanese appetite for creatures of the sea goes much further than just whales. The past decade, for example, has seen a tenfold increase in demand for shark fins, destined for the famous dish, sharkfin soup. Japan and China are once again the main markets for this so-called delicacy, and indiscriminate slaughter of sharks has been the result.

It is a brutal process. The shark is trapped, its dorsal fin hacked off, and the maimed fish is then thrown back into the sea to die. From the surface one shark’s fin looks pretty much like any other’s, so little or no distinction is made between rare shark species and those which are relatively common, nor between species that breed when young, and are prolific, and others which mature late and produce few offspring. Not surprisingly at least a third, perhaps as many as half of the world’s 250 or so shark species are now under threat of extinction, simply because of the thirst for sharkfin soup.

China is also the principal destination for illegal tiger parts, powdered rhinoceros horn, bears’ paws – principally from Asiatic Black Bears and Sun Bears – and elephant ivory, and the extent of the illegal wildlife trade was made starkly clear on 5th March this year, when Claudia McMurray, the Assistant Secretary for Ocean and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, addressed the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources.

During the course of her submission, Ms McMurray pointed out that the trade was conservatively estimated at some $US10 billion per year, but the true figure was likely to be closer to $20 billion. For example, the going rate for a tiger skin in China is $16,000, and a bottle of tiger bone wine (sounds unthinkable, but it exists) retails at anything from $40 to $100. A nine year embargo on elephant ivory was invoked in June, 2007, following huge stockpile sales, but all that has done is hike the black market ivory price from $200 per kilo in 2005 to $700 per kilo today.

A sobering illustration of the extent of the trade can be seen by what happened three weeks to the day after Claudia McMurray addressed the House Committee. On 26th March, Chinese authorities confiscated 790 tonnes of ivory in the Guangxi Zhuang region. This represents a total of some 80 African elephants, valued at $5 million.

In its Long March to modernisation, and acceptance by the west, the Chinese government has begun to address both conservation and the illegal wildlife trade. Its captive Giant Panda breeding program, for instance, is the most successful in the world, and it is also protecting other rare species by establishing a network of 1500 nature reserves throughout the country. Trade in animals covered by CITES agreements is now banned, and teaching children about conservation has been a compulsory part of the country’s education system for nearly two years. This last is perhaps the most progressive contribution of all, as its effect will impact positively on the attitudes of future generations.

However, old habits die hard, and Chinese both young and old still practise traditional medicine, some of which, unfortunately, consists of balms, potions and powders distilled or otherwise processed from body parts of endangered species.

The inhumane breeding and effective imprisonment of black bears has been the most visible of these processes in recent years, but the animals perhaps most at risk are – predictably – the elephant and the tiger.

Fortunately, both animals breed well in the wild, so if proper safeguards are enforced, their populations can recover. But the extent of poaching – mostly outside designated reserves, but also within them – asks the question: recover from what? In 1970 there were an estimated 400,000 elephants in Chad, which is just about the northern limit of the animal’s range. By 2006, poaching had reduced the figure to only 10,000. Taken in total, there were approximately 10 million African elephants in the era before European settlement. By 1981 they numbered just 1.3 million, and poaching slashed that total to a mere 750,000 by 1986. That is a reduction of almost half in a space of five years, and it was this dramatic slaughter that prompted the first bans on illegal ivory.

It is worth noting that whilst African elephant ivory is the most prized, dealers will also trade in bone from the smaller Asiatic elephant, an animal whose population is only about 10 percent of the African total.

Asiatic elephants are found principally in India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Burma and Thailand, and it is these countries that are also home to the last remaining wild tigers, currently numbering about 6000. Of these, only about 150 exist in Thailand, although recent studies have shown that Thai forest reserves could support as many as 2000 animals, and the government is giving serious consideration to establishing such enclaves.

Unfortunately, the same government seems to be turning a blind eye when it comes to the proliferation of illegal tiger breeding centres, which smuggle anything between 100 and 200 cubs into China each year. Thailand is also a major producer of tiger balm and other traditional medicinal products, and is a convenient conduit for transportation initiated by rogue traders in India. It is easier for Indian black marketeers to transport tiger parts to Thailand, because to smuggle them directly into China means entering politically unstable, and often violent regions, such as Jammu and Kashmir, and then negotiating some of the world’s highest mountains. It is much simpler to traffic them to Thailand and have them transported to the north of country, from where the passage into China is only about 150 kilometres, via a largely unpatrolled section of Burma.

China, Thailand, India, Japan, Gabon – it would be too easy to lay all the blame for illicit animal trading on just a selection of opportunist exporters and rich, environmentally uncaring importers. Let us not forget the locations of those bushmeat markets, all in highly modernised North American and European cities.

Therefore, perhaps it is timely to note that countries which promote themselves as torch bearers for conservation are also involved in the trade. Australia may have the worst track record when it comes to human-induced species extinction, but no-one today would dare to suggest that we have not taken enormous steps in cleaning up our act, and this country can rightly claim to be one of the most environmentally aware in the world. It would therefore be unthinkable for Australian fishing fleets to chop off the fins of sharks swimming in our territorial waters. But once the boats are outside those demarcation lines, this is exactly what they do. Fishing fleets based in Queensland are major exporters of shark fins – some estimates put their output at nearly 20% of the total market.

Perhaps no country touts its pro-environmental stance more vociferously than Canada, but even the Canadians are not blameless. Canadian and American fishing boats regularly venture into cold, southern hemisphere seas, in search of Chilean Sea Bass, which is a prized eating fish in both countries. It is also the triumph of a single marketing man, who coined the term Chilean Sea Bass, for there is no such creature.

Americans, who routinely import salmon farmed in Chile (admittedly under very poorly controlled, unhygienic conditions) have come to regard that country as a fish paradise. Sea Bass is hugely popular in the USA and Canada, and stocks at present are healthy. Therefore, if North Americans want sea bass, and understand it comes from a friendly supplier such as Chile, that’s just perfect.

But they are not eating Chilean Sea Bass, for that is nothing more than the marketing man’s re-naming of a much rarer species, one sufficiently endangered that Australian gunboats have even been sent into action to intercept Asian (mostly Indonesian) boats which have been seen harvesting it.

“Chilean Sea Bass” is in fact Patagonian Toothfish.

The world still has a lot to learn, and the bans on the bushmeat market and trading certain species clearly need to be more tightly enforced, as a matter of urgency.

David Scheel is a concert pianist, composer and humourist. Away from live performance he is also a respected writer and broadcaster on environmental and conservation issues.

Photo by mape_s

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