China Eats the World

This is the second installment of the author's series on how China chew its way through the natural resources of its Asian neighbors. Check out the other stories in this series:

As Chinese companies make inroads into Bolivia for infrastructure and resource extraction, locals have found that they can earn up to $215 selling jaguar fangs to Chinese employees. This new demand has now inspired hunters to go into the Amazon jungle to hunt commercially. Sadly, that is part of a trail of blood spattered across the planet, taking the shape of Chinese characters for trinkets and various “traditional medicines” that spell out ivory, rhino horn, jaguar fangs, swim bladder, shark’s fin and a host of other ghastly products.

The color red signals danger in primates and in many human cultures, but in China it symbolizes good luck. The seas, forests, plains, and deserts of the world are now soaked in blood thanks to an ancient demand for wildlife parts to cure human maladies and to serve as status symbols that sadly have been found to have no medicinal value by scientific tests. That’s one narrative, but there is another, something more sinister than primitive superstition: eat it because it’s exotic. This is going on every day, all over the world.

Jaguar fangs in the end market in China are worth as much as their weight in cocaine. National Geographic recently published a stunning article about how the cats are “killed to order” in Suriname for the overseas Chinese market.

A scientist I know who works in the tropical forests of Guyana, far from Bolivia on the north coast of South America, says he has heard that local hunters are in touch with Chinese agents in country’s capital city of Georgetown to procure jaguars. If it’s happening in Bolivia and also in Suriname and Guyana it’s easily conceivable that jaguars are being hunted for their fangs everywhere in between across the Amazon basin. The King of the Amazon, it seems, is nothing more than a potential gaudy trinket for China’s nouveau riche to hideously flaunt.

Chinese state-owned companies have sunk their fangs into forests adjacent to Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park—called the world’s most biodiverse ecosystem by scientists—while just last year Chinese poachers were arrested at sea with 300 tonnes of endangered sharks in Ecuadorian waters. That illegal haul equaled 6,000 sharks and the crew of 20 Chinese poachers were given sentences of up to four years in prison. In fact, Chinese demand for shark’s fin basically blankets the planet.

In 2016, a staggering 8 million dead seahorses were intercepted in Peru bound for China. Farther down on the South American continent in Argentina a Chinese poaching vessel was caught (and later destroyed) carrying 180 tonnes of illegally caught squid in Argentinean waters. And Chinese appetite for South America’s wildlife is not limited to the surf and turf, but also the skies. In 2016 HK$2 million worth of wild and illegally-imported macaws were intercepted by marine police and customs officers before they could be offloaded in Shenzen.

If the Amazon railway that China envisions for South America ever becomes a reality, linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, wildlife poaching and deforestation will no doubt rapidly increase. The same can be said of the proposed and China-backed Nicaragua Canal if that ever happens.

In Mexico, the vaquita is down to perhaps just a dozen individuals, thanks to Chinese demand for its swim bladder, and there are no other known populations of this incredibly beautiful sea creature. Vaquita fish bladder can be sold to the Chinese for US$30,000 and is now considered “the cocaine of the sea.”

Farther out to the east in the Caribbean Sea, Chinese appetite for rare land turtles—as well as sea turtles—was documented in the late Archie Carr’s classic book The Windward Road. Carr followed up a report that a Chinese merchant in Trinidad was in possession of a rare yellow-footed tortoise (Carr classified it as Testudo denticulate at that time).

Carr finally located Mr. Yow: “He was the most outrageous-looking Chinese I ever saw, a character from a poor melodrama, a debauched Fu Manchu. He was short, fat, and unwashed, with spiky hair, mouth slacked open, and belly hanging free…Yow said that he had only two and that he kept them to eat, not sell.”

Carr was trying to save the tortoises by purchasing them, and his friend finally prevailed by reminding Yow that he had “done favors for him in the past.” Finally: “Yow looked at the tortoises for a moment with a rapt reverence and they stirred him so deeply he could not be silent.…His voice trailed off in a long moan of falsetto ecstasy.”

Carr eventually procured the tortoises. That was in Trinidad in the 1940s, and what it shows is that there is no place that is too far away or obscure for Chinese demand for wildlife, and there never has been.

Farther north in Canada, a bear poaching ring was recently broken up and the customers of these illicit Canadian gunslingers were those seeking bear gallbladders on the Asian market. South of the border, two Michigan men were arrested for poaching black bears to sell to the traditional Chinese medicine market. Even in North America, bears are not safe from Chinese demand for their gallbladders. Chinese mining companies threaten wildlife habitats as far afield as Greenland.

Exploitation of Africa has been well-documented, with elephant herds and rhinoceros populations plummeting in recent years thanks to Chinese as well as Vietnamese demand. Nonetheless, it’s worth mentioning some specific cases here. Gabon’s forest elephants are coming under major pressure for their ivory, which will be shipped to China if the great beasts are unfortunate enough to encounter a poacher, and the same goes for the elephants of Mozambique, Botswana, Kenya, Ethiopia, and every other African nation that has elephants, ditto for rhinoceros.

Chinese demand and poaching are so rampant in Namibia that Namibian Chamber of Environment recently published a letter stating that the bush meat trade flourished anyplace that Chinese nationals were working on infrastructure projects, and in addition that Chinese citizens are involved in “illegal collection of shellfish on the Namibian coast Capturing and killing of Carmine Bee-eaters at their breeding colonies by means of nets; Importing Chinese monofilament nets via Zambia to the northeast of Namibia, which are destroying the fisheries of the Zambezi, Chobe, Kwando and Okavango Rivers.”

Off the coast of West Africa, Chinese fishing (poaching) vessels are clearing out the sea of any and all fish species. They are literally robbing African fishermen of their livelihoods. Ploughshare tortoises in Madagascar are rounded up and snuck onto flights bound for China. The number of African pangolins being hunted and sent to China is simply mind-blowing. Chinese infrastructure projects in Africa, like the new train line in Ethiopia, will, in addition to spurring the bush meat trade as it did in Namibia and elsewhere, also drive resource extraction and environmental degradation.

There is simply no end in sight. A stack of heavy books could be written on Chinese consumption of wildlife in South America, North America, Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Northeast Asia, and everywhere in between (even tiny Palau has the Herculean task of chasing away Chinese and Taiwanese fishing vessels). And when Chinese nationals are caught by local authorities for engaging in the wildlife trade, what happens?

It seems that if you throw a bunch of money their way, freedom is yours, as was the case in Suriname when Chinese nationals caught with jaguars were “fined” and then walked away. If this is how justice is carried out across the globe, and especially in the tropics, there won’t be much left of the world’s natural heritage in the not-too-distant future.

Gregory McCann is the Project Coordinator for Habitat ID and the author of the book Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor. You can support his conservation projects in Cambodia and Sumatra here. Second in a series.