By Jodi Peterson
This spring, the Gulf of California’s shores near the mouth of the Colorado River were littered with dead bodies. They weren’t casualties of the drug trade; instead, they were victims of another international market — the Asian desire for wildlife. Chinese demand for the swim bladders of the giant totoaba fish, thought to aid fertility, inspired the poaching of hundreds of the rare fish. The single organ was removed, the carcasses left to rot.
The totoaba, which can reach six feet long and weigh more than 200 pounds, has been protected since the ’70s by both the Mexican and U.S. governments. But with one totoaba bladder bringing more than $10,000 on the Asian market, there’s major incentive to catch the fish illegally. Poachers turned to totoaba after a similar species of fish in China was eaten nearly to extinction, says Jill Birchell, a special agent for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; a sad irony.
China has become the world’s largest market for wildlife products, and as its native animals vanish, Chinese consumers seek substitutes. This means that in this country, animals that have historically faced little pressure from hunters suddenly become targets. “This kind of large-scale trade and consumption of wildlife has never been part of Chinese tradition or culture,” writes the Asia Regional Director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare China, Grace Ge Gabriel. “It is the disastrous and abnormal consequences of today’s highly-industrialized chain of wildlife poaching, smuggling, transportation and trade.”
In California, trappers killed 1,500 bobcats last year, an increase of 50 percent over the previous year. Most pelts were shipped to China, where a single skin sells for $700 or more. The state’s commercial abalone fishery was shut down in 1997, but illegal capture of the shellfish is rampant; a single abalone brings $100 to $150 on the Chinese market. Ninety-five percent of geoducks, long-necked clams found off the coast of Washington, now end up in China, where they’re worth up to $150 per pound. And manta rays have nearly vanished from the Sea of Cortez, killed for the parts of their gills called rakers, which are prized as ingredients in a Chinese health tonic. More....