Guangdong's appetite for exotic dishes makes it an ideal market for wild animal smugglers, experts said.
About 2.8 percent of Chinese people regularly eat wild animals. In Guangdong, that figure climbs to 4.1 percent, according to a survey by the China Association of Wild Animal Protection.
Guangdong residents often eat snakes, tortoises and bears' paws. Few statistics are available on how many wild animals are eaten in Guangdong every year, but the most recent case of wild animal smuggling helps create a rough picture of how big the market is, officials at the Guangdong wild animals and plants protection center said.
Police seized more than 13,000 kilograms of smuggled wild animals in Yangjiang, Guangdong, last week
Locals said border police in Yangjiang intercepted a wooden ship full of wild animals that was anchored off the coast last Tuesday.
On board, they found more than 5,000 rare animals kept in about 200 wooden cages.
Among the animals were 2,720 monitor lizards, which are under first-class national protection; 30 pangolins, which are under second-class national protection; 44 leatherback turtles, which are also under national-level protection; 2,655 rare tortoises, which are under province-level protection; and 21 bears' paws.
It was the biggest wild animal smuggling case in at least a decade, said a source with Guangdong Customs.
"We did not find anybody on the ship. We only found a lot of wooden cases and a strong fishy smell that day," said Huang Xiaohong, the chief of Yangjiang frontier defense team.
Police said the ship did not have a name or a license. Nor did it list a port of registry.
This has made the task of identifying the smugglers very difficult, Huang said.
The captive wild animals have been sent to Guangzhou and are now under the protection of the Guangdong wild animals and plants protection center.
"We will feed the live animals until the case ends and then release them back into the wild," Li Tao, director of the center's information department, told China Daily.
The center will also freeze the bears' paws, and then cremate them after the case is completed, Li said.
Guangdong's customs bureau is investigating the case. However, officials have so far declined to reveal any specific information, saying that they want to protect the evidence.
According to a report in the local Guangzhou Daily, Yangjiang border police found a copy of the Nanyang Siang Pau, a Malaysian newspaper, on board the ship.
Of the major illegal international businesses plaguing the area, animal smuggling is second only to drug smuggling in terms of scale. The profits are enormous because many of the people who sell such animals know nothing about the animals' endangered status. They sell them to smugglers for next to nothing.
To serve as a positive example, almost all of Guangdong's high-ranking government officials have refused to eat wild animals, Li Tao said.
(China Daily May 30, 2007)