Li Jun, a 34-year-old Guangdong hakka, a middle-level manager in a state-owned factory in Shenzhen, says he cannot recall any food he has not tried.
"For the Cantonese, there is almost nothing that cannot be eaten," he said. "I've tried civet cats, spotted deer, and many other exotic animals that are forbidden."
The gourmet habits of the people from southern China dates back to the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-24 AD), when a book, Huainanzi, recorded their eating snakes for food. Literature from the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) describes the people of Guangdong eating "whatever food, be it birds, animals, worms or snakes."
Are there any criteria they use for choosing food?
"People eat some food because it tastes good, others because they believe it is replenishing," said Li.
This 2,000-year-old gourmet tradition, and traditional Chinese medicine beliefs, are leading to the over-consumption of China's wildlife resources, according to Wang Song, a research professor specializing in wild animal protection at the Animal Institute, China Academy of Sciences.
"China's overuse of wildlife is unique in the world," observed the professor.
In a visit to the Xinyuan Poultry and Livestock Market in Guangzhou, which was closed in January, he found that the market sold more than 10 tons of snakes and tortoises each day. Many were imported from Southeast Asia.
Recent policy changes made by the State Forestry Administration now allows some wild animals to be consumed at Chinese dinner tables, including civet cats, considered the primary carrier of the deadly SARS virus that killed thousands of people last year.
The administration's paper, entitled "Directive Suggestions to Promote Sustainable Development of Wild Animals and Plants," released in October, supports the commercial dealing and use of 54 propagated wild animals.
Except for more than 20 birds listed "for viewing purposes only," the rest of the wild animals will be used for fur, food and medicine, including the spotted deer, ostrich, silver fox, blue peacock, wild boar, crocodile, forest frog and scorpion.
The State Forestry Administration explains that these 54 animals have been propagated in captivity for at least two or three generations and can now be safely used for commercial purposes.
Jiang Zhigang, another research professor at the Animal Institute, believes commercial propagation can help protect wild animals.
"The availability of wild animals propagated in captivity cost less than poached ones and are free of legal and medical risks," analyzed Jiang. "This will also reduce poaching and protect wild animals."
He feels the commercial benefits will encourage people to propagate more wild animals and increase their number.
"Few people will cultivate wild animals only for the commonwealth," he observed. "If commercial uses are not allowed, the number of the species will decrease, as is the present case today."
As an example, while there are only around 2,000 spotted deer living in the wild, more than 300,000 are being propagated in animal farms.
The policy also states, for the first time, a distinction between animals in the wild and propagated ones, making it easier for the local government to enforce regulations protecting wild animals and those in animal farms for commercial use.
In a sense, wild animal protection and propagation are two sides of the same coin.
In some parts of the country, animals such as wild boars are a parasite and need to be controlled, while others are endangered and need protection.
China is a member of the Conventions on Biological Diversity and of CITES (Conventions of International Trade in Endangered Species). As China enters the WTO, the policy on wild animals for commercial use is essential to effectively compete in the international market of wild animal products.
There are 58,744 enterprises worldwide engaged in wild animal domestication and propagation, wild plant implantation and the commercial trading, import and export of wildlife and related products. These enterprises employ 400,000 people and have an annual turnover of 56.9 billion yuan (US$6.9 billion).
Wei Jixiang, a professor at Jilin Agriculture University, thinks the risks of eating commercially propagated wild animals is similar to that of eating poultry.
"As long as proper quarantine and process measures are taken, and the source of animals can be guaranteed, the animals should be safe."
Still, it is difficult to be sure that all the wild animals entering the market are from certified wild animal farms.
Wang Song believes that any policy should prioritize the protection of wild animals over their commercial value.
"If we consume wildlife resources within one or two generations, how can we maintain the numbers to continue to develop in the future?"
The list is still far from complete; many snakes have still not been included.
"China has been doing well in propagating the ostrich, peacock and elephant, but the number of many other species, such as the musk deer, is decrease sharply."
"The most important problem today is to find a way to protect the animals without the necessity of commercial use," he concluded.
(China Daily November 12, 2004)