For centuries, many Chinese people have believed wild animals to be more nutritious than domesticated counterparts. Some species like pangolin were even believed to contain mystic properties and regarded as a tonic that, when consumed, can make people stronger and healthier.
However, scientific research has found no evidence that wild game are either more nutritious as food or have medicinal effects. Rather than being good for health, the trade and consumption of wildlife have been found responsible for the spread of deadly viruses.
Some media reports have blamed the sale of wildlife that took place in the South China Seafood Market in Wuhan for the novel coronavirus outbreak that has infected thousands of people and killed over 300 in China. Although a study disputed this, saying the market may not be the origin of the outbreak, scientists see eye to eye that the chrysanthemum head bat is the most likely culprit. In 2013, Chinese scientists discovered that the chrysanthemum head bat was behind the SARS epidemic of 2002-03, which killed 349 people on the Chinese mainland. The novel coronavirus that is responsible for the present epidemic and the coronavirus that triggered SARS are of the same family and were likely transmitted by bat to a wild animal and then to human beings. Scientists say the intermediate host of the SARS virus which killed over 800 people worldwide was the civet cat, a pricey, sought-after delicacy in Guangdong at that time.
In a timely response, the Central Government and many provinces and cities have announced a temporary ban on the trade of wildlife, which will remain effective until the novel coronavirus outbreak is brought to an end.
Given the fact that the novel coronavirus and the other viruses that caused SARS, the bird flu and MERS are all related to animals and research results showing that more than 70 percent of new infectious diseases come from wildlife, it is time for China to consider permanently banning the poaching, trading and human consumption of wild terrestrial animals.
At the beginning of January this year, Shenzhen issued a directive banning wildlife hunting in all public parks, country parks and nature reserves for five years, a move that is not related to the ongoing epidemic. The city should take further action by permanently banning the trade and consumption of wild terrestrial animals because in most cases wild animals are sneaked into the city from other parts of the country or even foreign countries.
A science popularization campaign should also be launched across the country to educate people about the harms caused by consuming wildlife. The centuries-old myth surrounding the health effects of consuming wildlife should be debunked.
Zheng Jianxian, a food scientist at South China University of Technology, said in a research report in 2012: “These foods don’t have the mystic properties claimed. Comparing the nutritional values of domestic fowl and livestock with wild animals we found identical quantities of protein, carbohydrates, fats and other nutrients. There is no special nutritional value or particular benefit. And even if there are some minor differences, these are nowhere near as significant as people think.” News media outlets should publish more opinions of experts like Zheng to demystify the nutritional and medicinal values of wildlife as compared with farmed animals.
Society as a whole should develop a sustainable, healthy culinary culture. Consuming wildlife should be regarded a shameful act rather than a symbol of wealth and power. If there is no market for wildlife, there will be no merciless hunting, and hence, much less chances for viruses from wildlife to infect human beings.
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) should also be put under legal oversight and scientific scrutiny. More scientific tests on claims over the medicinal effect of some animals should be conducted if possible. Such test results should also be publicized and TCM practitioners should avoid giving prescriptions that include wildlife ingredients.
While medical science has taken a great leap in recent years, and China is now better prepared for tackling infectious diseases 17 years after SARS, the country and the whole world have never been so interconnected, making it easier for viruses to spread at an unprecedented rate. It is high time we switched to a more civilized culinary culture and said no to wildlife consumption.
(The author is a deputy editor-in-chief of Shenzhen Daily.)