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Saturday, 29 June, 2002, 11:38 GMT 12:38 UK
China's taste for the exotic
Eating exotic and wild species is as old as China itself.
But it has traditionally been the preserve of those of wealth and privilege.
But that has done nothing to stop the trade. In fact it is booming and, as China grows richer, the demand only grows stronger.
Normally I would not deliberately go hunting for exotic wildlife to put on the dinner table. The very idea appals me.
But my interest was stirred when I read that in the city of Shanghai 1,000 tons of snake are consumed every year. That, as I was to find out, is only the tip of the iceberg.
The rare and unusual
If China has a capital of the culinary bizarre, it is probably the city of Nanning, in the far south-west near the border with Vietnam.
Nanning, like most of southern China, is booming. And it is a boom that is fuelling the city's appetite for the rare and unusual.
Struggling through the crowds of morning shoppers in the maze of narrow streets that line the banks of the Yong river, I pushed my way into an old open market. On tables, piles of fresh meat swarmed with flies in the early summer heat.
As I watched, one was hauled from a cage yelping. While one man held it down, another thrust a 20cm (8-inch) knife into its heart - blood gushed, I stepped back, my gorge rising.
As I stood there transfixed by the horror of what I was watching, a little man next to me turned and smiled - apparently the dog was for him.
"Do you eat dog meat in your country?" he asked breezily.
"No, not really," I stammered.
Whatever one feels about dog eating, it is neither rare nor unusual in China.
Dogs are considered tasty. I tried to temper my revulsion by remembering that in Britain we delight in eating lambs, we just do not care to see how they are killed. And, lets face it, dogs are hardly an endangered species.
Not so what I came across next - a menagerie of the wild and exotic.
Cages full of snakes, bowls full of fresh water turtles, rows of owls and hawks, still alive but with their wings and feet bound - in south China the fresher the better.
On a doorstep, a man was squatting next to a green sack.
"What's in there?" I asked.
He thrust his hand inside and pulled out a large black cobra. Its hood was spread wide. It was evidently not in a good mood.
I leapt back terrified, but I was also captivated - it was the first time I had seen a cobra close up without a piece of glass to separate us.
"Where does it come from?" I asked.
"Oh it's from Vietnam," the man replied, making no attempt to hide the fact that it had been illegally smuggled into China.
Across the alley, two young women were negotiating the price of a turtle.
"Is it good to eat?" I asked.
"Of course it is," they replied in unison, "wild food is the tastiest."
"But aren't you worried it's illegal?" I asked.
"It's no problem," they laughed. "Everyone in Nanning eats wildlife."
Everyone does it
And they do. Everywhere I went people raved about it, about the taste, about the medicinal effects. Taxi drivers, shop keepers. There is even a thriving tourist trade based on eating rare and often endangered wild animals.
Outside posh restaurants expensive cars pack the parking lots - their license plates all from far away provinces.
Behind the net curtains almost anything is available - one restaurant owner offered me King Cobra done in three different ways. If you do not fancy that, there is monkey, bear, civet cat or perhaps Pangolin, a type of giant anteater. The rarer the better.
It would be easy to dismiss such eating habits as callous and cruel, the product of a culture that has little regard for human life, let alone animal ones.
Brought up as I was to respect and value wildlife, I find such behaviour difficult to explain, let alone to excuse.
But that I suppose is the point.
As a child I was taught - indoctrinated even - into believing that wildlife is important.
In China, there are no such divided loyalties. This is a country where, for half the population, mass starvation is still a living memory and where destruction of the environment is barely understood.
"You don't need to worry," one trader told me holding up a baby owl, "there are plenty more in the mountains."
The trouble is, there are not. China's frenzied consumption of everything that moves is decimating wildlife populations not only in China but across South East Asia.
One day Chinese people will no doubt learn to love and respect wildlife. But, by then, it may be too late.
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