The percentage of Chinese eating wild animals has gone down, mainly due to fears of diseases such as SARS. But at the same time total consumption of exotic wildlife has increased.
More and more Chinese refrain from eating rare animals such as pangolins, civet cats or bears. A nationwide survey, released by U.S. and Chinese conservation groups in Beijing on Tuesday, shows that nearly three quarters of the people interviewed did not consume wildlife in the past year.
By comparison, only about half of the respondents in a similar 1999 survey said they had not eaten wild animals.
Steve Trent, president of the U.S.- based conservation group WildAid, says many people stopped eating wild animals for fear of diseases such as SARS. The potentially deadly respiratory disease, which first emerged in southern China in late 2002, is thought to have come from civet cats, a species that was widely consumed before the SARS outbreak.
"The coverage that took place on national media was such that consumers began to realize: 'Blimey, this is actually coming from a wildlife species and we need to be careful.' And since that time there has been quite extended coverage about the nature of diseases that may be transmitted from wildlife to people and it is really starting to take root in people's consciousness," explained Trent.
Rare and often endangered species have long been delicacies in China, especially in the southern provinces. They are often used at banquets to show off a host's wealth.
Wild animals, often brought in illegally from other parts of the world, also play an important role in traditional Chinese medicine.
The survey shows that despite the attitude change of many consumers, these deeply ingrained cultural and medical traditions are not about to change completely any time soon. Trent says the number of shops and wholesale markets selling wild animals has increased. And although many people say they do not eat such animals, overall consumption has actually gone up, as more people than ever are able to afford them more often.
"At the same time you have this rapidly expanding economy and accelerating numbers of people entering the market place with large amounts of disposable income," he said. "Those individuals are also consuming wildlife so you have two different trends taking place at the same time."
Trent says the Chinese government has adopted a number of measures to stop illegal wildlife consumption. This includes issuing a list of 54 species that can be commercially consumed, making it easier for law enforcement agencies to crack down on the consumption of species not listed. The government also has stepped up campaigns warning about the hazards of the trade.