CHINA: May 1, 2003
HONG KONG - The global SARS virus may yet be good news for the world's endangered animals, victims of an illegal Chinese habit of eating rare species, but also prime suspects as incubators of deadly, new human pandemics.
China is regularly criticised by world animal protection groups, which they say turn a blind eye to trade in endangered species, because it is a lucrative business.
But now, faced with a SARS epidemic at home that has dented its global image, created panic in its capital, and threatened its economy and security, China has been pushed into action.
A Chinese public security official in Shenzhen, in the southern province of Guangdong, said yesterday China had raided tens of thousands of markets, restaurants and kitchens to crack down on the trade and consumption of protected animal species.
"In Guangdong, we have a law which says consumers must also be punished," said the official, who declined to be named. "This law has been around for a while, although we have never punished anyone for consuming. But we will punish them from now on, if we find them guilty."
The operation, codenamed "Spring Thunder", is part of China's belated battle to stop the spread of the global SARS virus, which some medical experts believe may have originated from the wild game that Chinese are so fond of consuming.
China's official Xinhua news agency reported that 170,000 forestry police took part, raiding 14,900 animal fairs and 67,800 hotels and restaurants across the country. Officials confiscated 838,500 endangered animals and arrested 1,428 suspects.
Neighbouring Hong Kong is also criticised as a conduit for the trade in endangered animals into China.
China's failure to adequately inform the World Health Organisation when SARS broke out in Guangdong in November last year has made mainland China and Hong Kong global epicentres of the deadly and infectious new disease, with almost five thousand cases, and nearly 300 dead.
HUMAN AND ANIMAL VIRAL SOUP
Several Chinese doctors have blamed the appearance of SARS on the business. They say some of the first SARS cases were in people who slaughtered and cooked game birds for restaurants.
This link is not proven, but southern China's towns and farms, where humans live cheek by jowl with their own stock, and pack markets with endangered species in cruel and unhygienic conditions, have historically been the place where some of the world's most deadly plagues have begun.
When a virus manages to leap the barrier between species, chances are it will be virulent and have no known cure.
The public security official said hundreds of markets, kitchens and restaurants were raided between April 10 and 20 in Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong.
Protected snakes, pangolins, anteaters, cranes and turtles were confiscated.
"The operation is aimed at stopping the trade and consumption of protected species. In Shenzhen, we raided at least a few hundred restaurants, kitchens and markets and arrested traders there," he said.
Traders of protected species face jail terms of up to 15 years in China. Those found smuggling China's top protected species, the panda, face death, the Shenzhen official said.
Scientists in Hong Kong have identified the SARS virus, which is from the same family of viruses that causes the common cold, as an animal strain that is new, or which they have never seen before.
Scientist Dennis Lo, who was among a group of experts at the Chinese University that cracked the genomic sequence of the SARS virus, said it may have come from wild animals.
"The virus is close to viruses found in rats and bovines. It's likely that the virus may have come from an animal that's not been studied before, such as wild game," Lo said.
The consumption of wild game is not as rampant in Hong Kong as it is in Guangdong, although residents here consume reptiles such as snakes and lizards during the winter months.
Smugglers often use this former British colony, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997, as a transit point to spirit exotic and protected species such as monitor lizards, pangolins, rare snakes and turtles into the mainland, where they end up on dinner tables.
Story by Tan Ee Lyn
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