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No, You Won’t Find “Wild Animals” in Most of China’s Wet Markets

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Red mesh bags stretched long by the weight of meter-long serpents. Tupperware bins crowded with armored scorpions and centipedes, buckets filled with giant salamanders — and, of course, cages of chickens, geese and ducks.

All of these were once a common sight at the Longdaowei market, an open-air wet market at the far western edge of Haizhu district in Guangzhou, one of China’s largest cities. Now, in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak, nearly all of the market’s livestock has disappeared.

So, too, have the crowds. “We cannot sell exotic animals anymore, and now there are fewer buyers coming to my shop,” says a seafood vendor surnamed Li, who has been working in the Longdaowei wet market for five years. Prior to China’s temporary ban on the sale of wild animals, effective January 26, Li’s shop sold turtle and frog species in addition to fish. And while we cannot claim to have ever seen “wild” animals at Longdaowei, we can say confidently that species visitors from the US or Europe might deem “exotic” were sold there prior to the wildlife ban.

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As a result of the ban, the sale of any live animals at these markets has by all appearances been swept away. And now, reports are suggesting that a permanent ban will soon follow, even if it’s still somewhat unclear which animals this may target in practice.

“The ban on the wild animal trade, I think, refers to animals that originated from the wilderness,” says Dr. Zhou Jinfeng, director-general of China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation, a Beijing-based non-governmental organization, before adding that wild animals can be farmed, although the practice is not clearly regulated.

In fact, many animals that some may consider “wild” are actually farmed for consumption in regions of China, from cockroaches and scorpions to snakes, civets, and rodents.

Scorpions for sale at Guangzhou’s Longdaowei (龙导尾) wet market, months before the Covid-19 outbreak

“Wild” inherently means that a foodstuff came from outside of the farm economy, while the term “exotic” better captures the unfamiliarity of Western consumers with certain meats and dishes. (Throughout this article, the term “wild animal” is only used when referring to creatures that hail from the wilderness.)

And this is where much of the reporting surrounding the novel coronavirus and the Wuhan seafood market it allegedly originated from goes wrong: the sale of wild animals is not common in Chinese wet markets, nor is the consumption of “bushmeat.”

This is where much of the reporting surrounding the Wuhan seafood market Covid-19 allegedly originated from goes wrong: the sale of wild animals is not common in Chinese wet markets, nor is the consumption of “bushmeat.”

At present, pangolins are speculated as being the possible source of the new coronavirus. The species is endangered and protected in China, although the use of its scales in traditional Chinese medicine has led to a black market fed by poaching. If the connection is confirmed, it would mean that the new disease jumped from a wild mammal to humans, and not from a farmed animal.

“There are no farmed pangolins in China,” Dr. Zhou tells us. “The so-called ‘farmed pangolins’ are fake and illegal.”

Yet it is not immediately clear if the impending ban on the wildlife trade will strictly stick to Dr. Zhou’s definition of a “wild animal,” or whether it would also target “exotic” species that are farmed, such as snakes and civets. Although the new ban is aimed at “terrestrial animals that come from the wilderness,” farmed and found in the wild, according to state media outlet Xinhua (link in Chinese), a more elaborate definition of which animal species are considered “wild” has not yet been released.

Blaming Wet for Wild

No shortage of ink has been spilt in recent weeks addressing the ongoing Covid-19 outbreak, from the government’s containment measures to the potential origin of the disease. For the latter, attention has largely focused on the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market. (Links between the virus and this particular market have been called into question, with a study last month noting that over 25% of the earliest cases of the disease have no link to the market.)

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As the finger pointing began online and in the media, one particular image drew considerable attention. A photo allegedly taken at the Huanan market showed a sign adorned with the names of both exotic and common animals, along with prices. Among other creatures, the sign listed prices for live wolf cubs, civets, foxes and koalas.

The believability of this list has been rightly questioned by some, although that hasn’t stopped heavyweight media outlets from chiming in on it.

“Animals sold in these markets are often kept in filthy conditions and left to fester in their own waste, which means they incubate diseases that can then spill into human populations,” reads an article published by The Guardian at the end of last month. “Similar markets are found all over the country and have been the source of outbreaks in the past.”

And while livestock unfamiliar to grocery shoppers outside of China was undoubtedly present in many of Guangzhou’s wet markets prior to the government’s ban on wildlife sales late last month, neither of the journalists behind this story have ever come across pangolins, koalas or wolf cubs in our five-plus years living in the city.

Across the mighty Pearl River from Longdaowei is Guangzhou’s famous seafood market, Huangsha Aquatic Products Market — the wettest of the wet markets, quite literally. Virtually all vendor stalls in the sprawling complex are generously adorned with fresh and salt water-filled tanks and the hum of percolating aerators fills the air, occasionally drowned out by only the chatter of the vendors themselves.

seafood wet market guangzhou

Seafood at Xihua Wet Market (西华市场) in Guangzhou’s Haizhu district on February 22

Prior to Covid-19, one could find crocodiles, turtles and snakes here, along with other bounties of our planet’s oceans, rivers and lakes: Australian lobster, giant Thai prawns, Atlantic and Pacific salmon, and flounder.

Weeks after the ban on wildlife sales, though, there is no sign of exotic creatures or meats. In fact, the fare on offer is comparable to what one would find in the seafood section of Seattle’s famed Pike Place Market.

Still, though, banned items are onsite — according to one vendor we speak to.

“How many [snakes] do you want?” a middle-aged man standing outside a shellfish shop asks us, after we inquire about the lack of slithery serpents in the market. “I can go upstairs and take photos [of the snakes] for you to see.” He runs off, only to return a short time later and inform us that everyone is too spooked to sell snakes at the moment. He suggests we purchase an eel instead.

No Two Markets

Markets in China’s south and along the nation’s southern border have something of a negative reputation in the West: from the snake salesmen of Hong Kong and Guangdong and the dog butchers of Yulin, Guangxi to the folks selling pangolins, bear cubs and tiger parts in the Yunnan-Myanmar border town of Mongla (or Xiaomengla). A 2005 article from CNN notes that Guangdong’s Pearl River Delta region, more recently referred to as the Greater Bay Area, has “the unenviable title of being the ‘petri dish’ of the world.”

In fairness, there is a source for this stigma: a large chunk of the nation’s exotic and wild animal consumption occurs south of the Yangtze River.

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“As for regions [where wild animal consumption occurs], the south prevails, based on our previous work to combat wild animal poaching and consumption,” says Dr. Zhou. “Guangdong, for instance, is a region with a large scale of wild animal consumption.”

Even within China, stereotypes about southerner’s culinary preferences abound. In northern China, a popular adage addressing the dining preferences of Cantonese people goes something like this: “If it has four legs and isn’t a table, and wings and isn’t an airplane, Cantonese people will eat it.”

But China is a vast and varied country with a host of ethnic minorities, languages and dietary choices, and painting the entirety of the nation’s population with the same brush demonstrates a downright ignorance of its diversity. Assuming all Chinese people eat snakes and dogs, even within a particular region, is as silly as assuming every American you encounter owns a semi-automatic weapon.

Outside Guangzhou’s Xihua Wet Market (西华市场) on February 22

Presuming that all of China’s wet markets are the same is equally foolish. Liu Shuai, a journalist with Guangdong Radio and Television who originally hails from Taiyuan, the capital of northern Shanxi province, has lived in Guangzhou for 11 years. Liu says that markets in the south are vastly different than those she is familiar with in China’s north.

“Of the wet markets in Taiyuan, most are outdoors and many of them are not organized like here in Guangzhou — it’s just people selling stuff on the back of a bike or motorbike,” Liu tells us. “But also, vendors there do not sell live animals; pigs, cows, lambs and chickens are all killed [offsite], animals are not killed at the market. In Guangzhou, you can see chickens and ducks alive in cages, and they are killed right there in the market.”

In Shanghai, over 1,400 kilometers northeast of Guangzhou, the sale of live poultry was banned in 2014 in response to bird flu. Today, many of the city’s central wet markets are pristine: The newer markets’ floors are anything but wet, and slabs of pork and chicken are well organized in climate-controlled display cases. Livestock is not allowed, or commonly seen in the city’s downtown markets.

“When I think of a wet market, having grown up in Guangzhou, I think of wet floors covered with vegetable and animal waste,” says Christy Choi, a Guangzhou native who relocated to Shanghai for work one year ago. “In Shanghai, the markets are more organized. Meat is laid out nicely […] in newer markets, meat is kept in refrigerators.”

Vendors at Shanghai’s New Zhenning Wet Market (新镇宁菜市场) (image: courtesy Christy Choi)

Still, despite their differences, the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of Chinese wet markets are not involved in the wild animal trade.

“The percentage of the population that eats wild animals is very small. It’s a tiny minority in our population,” states Dr. Zhou.

“The percentage of the population that eats wild animals is very small. It’s a tiny minority in our population.”

Liu agrees, telling us: “I think it’s a small percentage of people that eat [wild animals]. Most of the wet markets in Guangzhou do not sell wild animals, they sell vegetables and common meats.”

An Imminent Ban

As questions regarding the outbreak of Covid-19 mount, and concern regarding the sale of wild animals continues to grow, it seems a total ban on the practice is on the horizon in China. On February 24, after loud calls from experts and the public alike, draft legislation banning the trade in illegal wildlife was approved by the Standing Committee of the 13th National People’s Congress. The proposed laws would also restrict “the consumption of wild animals to safeguard people’s lives and health,” according to state media outlet People’s Daily.

It is not immediately clear if a permanent ban on the wildlife trade in China would stick strictly to Dr. Zhou’s definition of a “wild animal,” or whether it would also target exotic species that are farmed, such as snakes and civets.

china wild animal market ban

But will such a ban work, or even be enforceable?

“I believe it will succeed this time,” says Dr. Zhou. “We should encourage the public to not eat wild animals and we should encourage their involvement too. If you look at the reports on the illegal wildlife trade, most of them come from members of the public.”

Previous bans on livestock in markets have had mixed effects in China. Back in 2015, authorities in Guangzhou introduced a five-year ban on the sale of live poultry in several of the city’s central districts. The ban was further extended in 2017 to cover most of the city’s wet markets, and the Guangzhou Municipal Health Commission said they would expand the scope of the ban in the future.

Despite this, live poultry has continued to be a fixture in many wet markets. As recently as the end of December 2019, we can independently verify that two wet markets — one in Haizhu and the other in the Yuexiu district of the city — had live birds on the premises.

“Now, I think police will enforce a ban, for a short period of time. But later, when the panic lessens, I think some people will try to sell and buy wild animals,” says Liu.

Guangzhou Haizhu District wet market

Shoppers browse produce at Shayuan Wet Market (沙园市场) in Guangzhou’s Haizhu District on February 22

Ultimately, government enforcement might not be the key to change. The positive outcome of all the fear and hysteria surrounding Covid-19 might just be that many of the merchants in China’s wet markets take a stand against vendors hawking live, exotic species.

At the rear of Dongwang Wholesale Market, a food and condiment center in Guangzhou’s Baiyun district, we encounter a young man surnamed Huang eating his lunch. The large market has no live animals on the premises, although dried fish and meats are found throughout the complex. When pressed about the possibility of working in close proximity to live animals, Huang has this to say: “Management at the market are very strict and they’ve never sold wildlife, but I would be uncomfortable if they started to in the wake of the new coronavirus.”

Additional reporting by Tristin Zhang
All images unless otherwise stated: Matthew Bossons

Matthew Bossons
    Matthew Bossons is a Guangzhou-based writer and editor with a passion for history, untold stories and good beer. Originally from Vancouver, Canada, Bossons has worked as a journalist in China for over half a decade and has had work published in major Chinese media outlets as well as international publications.