Part Four: China's Illegal Trade Threatens the Environment

As the world's most populous country, with over 1.3 billion people and a burgeoning economy, China is quickly becoming a major player on the world stage. Cities such as Beijing and Shanghai are growing in size and opulence, featuring modern skylines that rival many of those found in America. Unfortunately, China's environmental record is miserable, with few animal protection laws, massive habitat loss and degradation, and severe air pollution. When it comes to wildlife trade, China's consumption of these products has skyrocketed. The growing middle-to-upper class has allowed more people to spend money on wildlife and wildlife products than ever before.

China is now a major destination for illicit elephant ivory—both raw tusks and ivory products. The demand for ivory has soared as more people can afford the cost of this symbol of affluence. In 2006, two large shipments of ivory weighing over 12,500 pounds and representing the tusks of nearly 900 elephants were seized in China and Hong Kong, respectively. Smaller seizures of illegal ivory appear to be routine, with at least two such incidents occurring in January 2007 and another the following month.

Alarmingly, the Department of Wildlife and National Parks in Botswana reported in August 2006 that Chinese nationals have been involved in several cases of elephant poaching. This announcement was preceded by a July 2006 report in the United Kingdom's Sunday Standard on the role of Chinese ivory dealers who facilitate the illegal trade in stockpiled Zimbabwean ivory, leading to increased poaching of elephants in neighboring countries to fulfill a seeming bottomless demand.

China's desire for wildlife products is also a threat to turtles, sharks and many species of fish. Turtles are a popular ingredient in many Chinese meals and are used in traditional Chinese medicine. They are a favorite food served in restaurants and can be bought live at China's supermarkets, where they are often tied up and left to squirm inside of string bags. Turtle head soup, according to a Chinese man interviewed for a February 2007 article in the Sunday Standard, is "better than Viagra," due to its alleged aphrodisiac affect. Upward of 20 million turtles are consumed in China each year, often as a delicacy. However, according to dozens of scientific studies, it is impossible to kill a turtle humanely.

Turtle farms all over China are now purchasing wild-caught turtles to improve their breeding stock, further harming the threatened species. Photo: Care for the Wild InternationalTo meet the demand for these animals, there are more than 1,000 turtle farms estimated to exist in China. While turtle farming has reportedly reduced the market share of wild turtles in South China from 70 percent in 2000 to 30 percent today, other factors, including the fact that many Southeast Asian turtle populations are greatly depleted, may have also contributed to this shift. Turtle farmers are also now purchasing wild-caught turtles to improve their breeding stock. This places significant new pressure on China's turtle species, which are nearly all threatened, as the effort needed to capture even the rarest wild turtles has become economically worthwhile. Moreover, some turtle farmers are operating illegal turtle laundering operations, selling off wild-caught turtles as farm-raised.

Shark carcasses are crudely tossed aside after their fins are removed for use in shark fin soup. Photo: Ayerst/Marine PhotobankChina also has a taste for shark fin soup, an expensive dish that is frequently served during wedding celebrations. Its popularity is contributing to a global decline in many shark species; scientists estimate that 38 to 100 million sharks are being caught annually by the world's fishing fleets. Many are caught intentionally to feed the growing market for shark fins, meat, cartilage and skin. Others die as bycatch. Sharks have their fins cut off while they are still alive, and often they are thrown back into the ocean, where they are unable to swim and destined to die. While China is not solely responsible for the decline in shark populations, its demand is setting a bad example for other countries that have banned the product but do not enforce their laws.

Shark carcasses are crudely tossed aside after their fins are removed for use in shark fin soup. Photo: Ayerst/Marine PhotobankReef fish are another popular meal in China. Restaurants may stock live reef fish in large tanks, allowing their customers to select which fish they eat. Though considered a delicacy and costing anywhere from $50 to $100 per pound, depending on the species, the demand for coral or reef fish has exploded in line with China's economy. Since local fish stocks have been exhausted, restaurant tanks are filled to the rim with exotic fish species collected throughout Southeast Asia, Australia, Malaysia, Indonesia, and as far away as Fiji and Vanuatu, as unsustainable fishing practices used to satiate this demand spread across the Pacific Ocean.

Increasingly rare species, including grouper, snapper and the humphead wrasse, continue to be collected to please the palates of Chinese consumers. According to a report issued by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, 20 species of grouper are threatened with extinction. As one of the oldest fish inhabiting coral reefs, many do not reach sexual maturity until late in life, making them particularly vulnerable to overfishing. Two species of coral trout grouper, a favorite in Hong Kong's live reef fish trade, are subject to extensive and unmanaged fishing pressure. In Malaysia, a study by the World Conservation Union concluded that catches of some grouper species and the endangered Napoleon wrasse declined by 99 percent from 1995 to 2003 as China's demand for reef fish escalated.

Napoleon Wrasse populations, which have been wiped out almost entirely over the past 15 years, are suffering to satisfy China's appetite for reef fish. Photo: FlagstaffotosNot only is the reef fish trade devastating reef fish species, but the methods of capture—including the use of dynamite and cyanide—are destroying entire reefs that have already been harmed by pollution and global warming. The World Resources Institute reports that 88 percent of Southeast Asia's coral reefs face destruction from overfishing and pollution. Indeed, an article in the International Herald Tribune claims that large sections of reefs in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia are quickly becoming devoid of marine life because of overfishing and the use of cyanide. This toxin, used to stun the fish to be captured, kills most other marine life, including coral. Only a quarter of the captured fish actually make it live to the restaurants.

It is said that people who live in glass houses should not throw stones. America and other developed countries are not without fault, and our environmental records are not stellar. The United States is responsible for causing the extinction or near extinction of hundreds of species, and our consumerist lifestyle has enormous environmental implications throughout the world. China must learn from these mistakes and not repeat them. It cannot continue to hide behind the label of "developing country" to avoid its stewardship responsibilities to the environment. The upcoming 2008 Beijing Olympic Games are being touted as the "green" games; we hope that they usher in a "green" future for China.