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View from abroad: Eating the world

Updated February 15, 2016

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THE Indian swiftlet is not a very distinguished bird among the many spectacular species that flourish in Sri Lanka. But it featured in a recent full page newspaper report that informed readers about a smuggling racket involving the swiftlet’s nests. Dead chicks and broken eggs were discovered near a cave where the birds had built their nests, using their saliva to bind twigs and grass together.

As it is a crime in Sri Lanka to kill birds and destroy their nests, the police were called in; their top official in the area has promised tighter security. Apparently, these nests had been earlier subjected to similar trafficking in the early ‘90s before a government crackdown had halted the illegal trade.

So who is buying these nests? I had read references to ‘bird’s nest soup’ in various Chinese cookbooks, but had never really focused on the type of nests used in the dish. It seems that the saliva of swiftlets imparts a delicate flavour to the soup. Now that I know that eggs are destroyed and chicks killed in the process, I don’t think I’ll ever taste the dish even though I seldom have much inhibition about what I eat, as long as it tastes good.

Sadly, swiftlets are not the only species to fall victim to China’s voracious appetite for anything that walks, swims, flies or crawls. But many animals are not killed just for food: several species are now facing extinction because of the demand created by traditional Chinese medicine. The average price of tiger bones, for instance, is around $300 per kilo. A bowl of tiger penis soup can set you back $320 in Taiwan, while a pair of tiger eyes cost $170. Tiger meat is served at private banquets in China by newly rich businessmen wishing to flaunt their wealth.

All this despite a complete ban on trafficking tiger parts imposed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Although China is a signatory, it has made little effort to halt this trade, giving gangs of poachers every incentive to hunt the animals to near extinction from Siberia to Indonesia. The remaining tigers in Bangladesh, India and Nepal are under grave threat.

Another endangered species is the rhinoceros. A kilo of the animal’s horn can sell for $100,000, making it more valuable than gold. Despite a plethora of scientific evidence, many in East Asia remain convinced of its curative properties. However, this time it is Vietnam, not China, that has pushed horn prices to their present level. For some reason, people there have become convinced that rhino horn can cure cancer, and this ignorance can doom the magnificent animal.

As incomes in countries like China, Vietnam and Taiwan have grown these last few decades, and a new class of nouveau riche has emerged, the means to indulge every gastronomic whim has become available. Thus, shark’s fins, pangolins, yak penis, cobra heart and many other exotic items find themselves being served in expensive restaurants and in rich people’s homes. China, having virtually eliminated several species at home, is now paying hefty prices to import these delicacies.

Elephants are another noble species being decimated to feed China’s appetite for ivory. Every year, around 35,000 are killed in Africa, and the price of their tusks had gone up to around $2,500 per kilo. However, China’s recent efforts to reduce the sale of ivory have had an impact on prices which have fallen by half over the last year. Nevertheless, gangs of poachers are active across Africa, slaughtering elephants and threatening the species with extinction.

Ironically, China claims it is unable to halt this traffic in banned animals despite being a highly autocratic state. It routinely jails citizens for the smallest infraction of the laws and has gagged virtually all dissent. So if it can shut down websites and lock up political opponents at will, why can’t it put an end to the slaughter of many endangered species?

Then we have the Japanese with their insistence on continuing to hunt whales on the pretext of ‘research’. Despite a worldwide ban, Japanese whaling ships sail out to kill these highly intelligent cetaceans every year. Opposed by environmental groups like Greenpeace, the Japanese have continued to hunt and eat whales. But the ban on commercial whaling brokered by the International Whaling Commission in 1986 has at least put a brake on the rapid decline in the numbers of these giants of the oceans.

As it is, many animals are under threat due to the exponential increase in the size of human communities. Farming and spreading cities have deprived thousands of species of their natural habitat, pushing them into ever-shrinking spaces. And when they try and return to the land that was once their home, they are shot and trapped. Elephants, requiring a lot of food, are especially vulnerable, often coming into conflict with farmers.

Fish stocks are under great pressure, with fishing fleets scouring the oceans with huge nets and modern sonar equipment. These fleets, often accompanied by factory ships, are emptying the seas by the use of illegal fine-meshed nets that allow nothing to escape. Once the nets are hauled in, the fish that are not required are dumped back, long after they have died.

In European waters, there are quotas that aim at sustainable catches. In Asia, however, there is a free for all, with long-range fishing fleets from China, Japan and Taiwan extending their search to the East African and South Asian coasts. Local fishermen often complain that their catches have fallen as a result of this competition from these well-equipped vessels.

The rapidly increasing demand for fish is the result of rising incomes, and the knowledge of the health benefits of fish as compared with meat. And while fish farming is becoming increasingly popular, the inexorable rise in the world’s population ensures that mankind will continue taking a toll on wildlife everywhere.

Twitter: @irfan_husain

Published in Dawn, February 15th, 2016