Chinese police have seized hundreds of bear paws and dead pangolins smuggled into China where they are prized as an expensive culinary delicacy with uses in traditional medicine.
Police made 20 arrests in a smuggling ring in the south-western province of Yunnan, seizing 278 bear paws and 416 pangolins which had been brought in by lorry or train from Yunnan to three neighbouring provinces between December and January this year, according to a report in the Yunnan Daily.
The pangolins, which resemble armadillos, had been injected with tranquillisers to keep them quiet.
China is the world's number one consumer of wildlife and has pledged to introduce sustainable trade in wild plants and animals. Its 1989 Wildlife Protection Law banned the consumption of internationally protected species. But it faces a difficult task. China's growing wealth means more lavish banquets, which means more exotic wildlife on the menu, like pangolins, bear paw, snake and tigers.
It is not an unusual sight in many areas of China to see live deer in a pen or crocodiles in a tank in a restaurant. Buying and eating rare animals is a common way of showing off.
In southern China, for example, rare meat is known as ye wei (wild taste), and people believe eating exotic food can endow you with bravery, long life or sexual prowess. A common saying in northern China is that the Cantonese "eat anything that has four legs and is not a chair and anything that flies and is not an airplane."
The fat, skin, paws, bones, claws and other parts of bears, both from farmed bears or bears poached in the wild, is used in folk medicines or as the basis for meals in expensive restaurants.
In medicine, bear paws are used to treat everything from cancer to "general body weakness" to arthritis to impotence. It's not just southerners that like bear paw - it features strongly in Liaoning cuisine in the northeast, particularly in Shenyang dishes, though a substitute is generally used because of the prohibitive cost. Braised bear's paw also features in Sichuan cuisine.
Each bear paw sells on the wet markets of Shanghai for around £350. Pangolin meat sells for £140 a kilogram and each animal yields up to five kilograms, so a good-sized pangolin is worth £700.
Its meat is considered highly nutritious, and its scales are prescribed to breast-feeding mothers, and for arthritis, asthma and to stopping infants drooling. One application is for prostate cancer and another for haemophilia. Pangolin urine is also believed to have medicinal properties.
In the wet markets there are sections which look like petting zoos for exotic wildlife - but you have to be in the know to get access to them. It is not just food. Traditional Chinese medicine is undergoing a revival, as people turn to old-fashioned methods of healing as an alternative to the country's under-invested public health system. A trip to a Chinese apothecary is a journey through drawer after drawer of exotic ingredients. While scientists say the use of exotic animal parts has no medical advantage, older people in particular are hard to convince.
Among the unorthodox cures, by Western standards, are golden turtle's blood, which is used as a cure for cancer; sea horse to treat asthma, heart disease and impotence; rhino horn to stop convulsions; pickled turtle flippers for longer life; and fresh snake blood, a potent aphrodisiac. Eating owl is supposed to be good for the eyesight.
In Chinese restaurants, people often use code words to order the endangered species.
Trade in pangolins and freshwater turtles has taken over from extremely rare items such as tiger paw, rhino horn and bear gall bladder, because of a crackdown in the trade of the endangered items in the Asia-Pacific region. As well as their paws, bears are prized for their bile, which is used in 123 different kinds of Chinese medicines. Bear bile and gall bladders are used to treat a host of ailments, from burns to liver disorders.
The US conservation agency WildAid says the use of bear parts to supply the traditional Chinese medicine trade and exotic meat market is one of the reasons why most bear species are declining around the world.
Endangered species of bears could become extinct because of poachers keen to cash in on the multimillion-pound trade in animal parts for China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea, as well as the Chinese communities in other parts of the world.
In the Eighties, China set up bear farms to extract the bile from the gallbladders of living bears, but even though the original intention was to help preserve the animals, farmed bears have a short life expectancy - around four years as opposed to 25 years of life in the wild. Conditions for animals kept in the bear farms can often be horrendous. The bile is extracted from the living bear through a steel tube inserted into the bear's body.
And even these efforts at conservation may be in vain, as purists believe the bear gall from captive bears is inferior to wild-bear bile. Conservationists want adherents of Chinese medicine to use herbal alternatives to bear paw.
An important route for illegal bear paws is from Russia, where endangered species such as Himalayan black bears and their cubs are hunted illegally in the eastern part of the country.
However, since the advent of Sars - or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome - some diners have lost their taste for animals such as the civet cat, believed to be responsible for the initial outbreak of the syndrome in 2002, which killed 774 people.
There have been efforts to turn people off the desire for exotic wildlife, with television adverts featuring kung-fu star Jackie Chan.
And in January 2004, Chinese customs officials made the biggest haul of smuggled wild animal products since the Communists came to power in 1949, when they seized the skins of 31 Bengal tigers, 581 Asian leopards, 778 otters and two lynx worth nearly £700,000.
Species in danger of extinction
Estimates of the number of wild bears in China vary from 20-60,000. Increasing Chinese wealth has placed a greater demand for smuggled bears, which are a much sought after ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine. In recent years their numbers have been steadily declining. The mistreatment of bears within China has long drawn criticism from animal rights activists.
Pangolins, a hard-skinned tree mammal found throughout much of Asia, are particularly relished. Throughout Asia they are also hunted for their skin, which produces distinctively patterned leather for shoes, handbags, and other accessories. Campaigners have called for international action to curb smuggling of pangolins, which are now highly endangered.
Consumption of civet cats, long favoured as a vital ingredient by Chinese herbalists and diners who enjoy their meat, has fallen since the arrival of the fatal respiratory disease Sars. Scientists have suggested that the practice of eating Civet Cats - and particularly the horrendous conditions in which they are kept - contributed to the outbreak of the virus in 2003. In January 2004, Guangdong province in China banned sales of civet cats and ordered the slaughter of all captive civets. The following year the United States announced an embargo on the importation of civets.