Despite numerous warnings and scientific evidence linking civet cats to the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) coronavirus, restaurants in Guangdong have been caught selling the animals' meat.
In response, provincial health authorities have warned of the possibility of a deadly SARS outbreak this spring if people let their guards down.
Though no new cases of SARS have emerged in south China's Guangdong Province, several restaurants have been caught selling wild animals, including civet cats, according to Guangdong Health Department.
"It seems that some people are determined to start eating civet cats again since no new SARS cases have been reported over the past two years in Guangdong Province. It's a very dangerous sign," said Huang Fei, deputy director of the Guangdong Health Department.
The disease, which first appeared in February 2003, originated in the province.
Guangdong banned the raising and feeding, sale, butchering and eating of civet cats in January 2004. The animals were regarded as a delicacy prior to the disease's outbreak.
The move effectively halted the spread of the SARS virus, Huang said.
However, a crackdown this year on the illegal sale of wild animals at Guangdong's restaurants yielded one live civet cat, 14 frozen civet cats and ferret badgers as well as 22 kilograms of frozen civet cat meat from 18 different animals.
Health inspectors had investigated more than 11,700 restaurants from January 16 to February 6.
All the offenders had to pay up to a 30,000 yuan (US$3,800) fine, and some were ordered to stop operations until they were able to work within the scope of the law. "The result was within our expectations because we had received reports from the public about people illegally selling and eating civet cats this year," Huang said.
The last time live civet cats were found was at the end of 2004, when a joint action involving the Ministry of Health and the Guangdong Health Department netted some animals.
The health enforcement team will continue to carry out inspections throughout the province until February 16.
To encourage the public to report the illegal sale of wild animals, the authorities have doubled their reward for verifiable information to 1,000 yuan (US$128.6) from 500 yuan (US$64.1), Huang said.
Luo Huiming, director of epidemic institute under the Guangdong Center for Disease Control & Prevention, also reminded people to keep alert for new SARS cases.
"It's hard to predict whether a SARS epidemic in Guangdong Province could emerge this spring since the disease's cause remains unclear, but the possibility of a new breakout should not be ruled out," Luo said.
However, due to the many preventative measures that have been taken and the province's monitoring system, "the risk has been reduced compared with 2003 and 2004," Luo added.
He suggested that people who had been in close contact with civet cats to see a doctor if they experienced a fever and a cough within a week's time.
(China Daily February 14, 2007)