Many endangered species are under threat from growing prosperity in China, where exotic animals are butchered for gourmet banquets, exotic medicines or luxury goods. But as reports from a conference on endangered species in Bangkok, activists are crediting the Chinese government with stepping up efforts to curb such practices.
Fear about the effect of rampant Chinese consumption on endangered species is receiving attention in Bangkok this week, at the 13th conference on the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES for short.
Statistics cited at the conference show that Chinese demand, fueled by tradition and growing prosperity, is a vital factor driving the trade in such species as black bear, box turtles, exotic fish, snakes and elephants. The Chinese eat exotic animals, grind up their parts for medicines, and wear other parts as status symbols.
CITES Secretary General Willem Wijnstekers said the effect is being felt not only by China's Asian neighbors, but as far away as Africa.
"It is a tremendous increase in demand for wildlife products exerted by China, particularly on its neighboring countries," he said. "The demand for African elephant ivory, and any ivory for that matter, is increasing because people have access to it."
Asia's fresh water turtles are another species threatened by China's growing appetites. The animal protection group WildAid reported that in one raid in 2003, officers of the Thai Royal Forest Department seized 10,000 turtles being smuggled into Laos, bound ultimately for China.
Thai Senator Kraisak Choonhavan says the combination of a liberalized economy and the traditional Chinese taste for exotic foods threatens to create an environmental nightmare.
"Demand has gone up tremendously since the neo-liberalization of the Chinese economy," said Senator Choonhavan. "It produced a huge middle class and upper-middle class which have a culinary taste for wild animals - and that has to stop."
Mr. Kraisak says Southeast Asian countries need to develop policies to stem the illegal trade that sends so many endangered animals into China.
An officer with the Chinese Customs Administration, who gave his name as Shi, says China is making progress in curbing the trade.
"I think we have done our best," he said. "I think the conditions are becoming better. We have many measures in training and awareness. Management authorities have held many meetings and seminars and to tell people what is wrong and to protect wild animals."
Officials and non-governmental groups gave China credit for interrupting a shipment last year of more than 1,200 furs, including more than 30 tiger skins, smuggled into Tibet from India,
But officials from some of the 166 governments represented at the conference say governments and international agencies are still making little headway against the multi-billion dollar illegal wildlife trade, which is dominated by organized crime syndicates.