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Animals at risk thanks to national food fads

Friday 17 October 2003

Our countryside writer John Sheard, taking a break on the paradise island of Bali, reflects on the way that national diets impact on the local wildlife

WITHOUT wishing to gloat, I am sick to death of Singapore chillied crab, lobster and prawns the size of small dachhunds. After a couple of weeks of over –indulgence in same, I am longing for some Skipton fish and chips.

So as I sat eating superb Italian pasta in an immaculate restaurant as the sun went down over the Indian Ocean last night, the following thought came to me: how nations’ eating habits can make or break the local wildlife.

For just down the beach from where I was eating, dedicated environmentalists are doing their best to protect a rare species of turtles, whose traditional nesting-beaches in other parts of the Pacific Rim have been endangered by their breeding-beaches being turned over to the tourist trade.

Yet, only two days ago, the local paper reported that there was a thriving black-market in the very same turtle meat, much of which is shipped to Japan where is an expensive luxury.

Now although this is a new twist to me, it by no means a new story. The Japanese appetite for rare species as food has been causing havoc for decades, if not generations.

This is the nation which is threatening to resume whaling in contravention of world treaties. Their fishermen kill tens of thousands of dolphins every year in nets which other countries have banned.

Many thousands of sharks are killed each year in a most horrendous way by Japanese fisherman who drag them aboard, cut of their dorsal fins, and throw them back still alive. The reason: another prize delicacy, shark fin soup.

And – not many people know this – the very existence of the marvelous tuna is threatened by Japanese over-fishing because, unlike other nations, they hoover up millions of young fish considered under-sized by more civilised nations – because the younger, the better, in sushi bars.

The Japanese are not alone in this. The Chinese like their shark fin soup too – but their main impact on wild species is to do with medicine, not food. The African rhinos, both black and white, are at risk from poachers because ground-up rhino horn has been China’s viagra for centuries.

Similarly, Asian tigers have been wiped out on Bali and Java because parts of their intestines feature in ancient Chinese potions said the give a man the strength of the tiger.

All of which makes me think of the Yorkshire Dales, which is perhaps the most roundabout link I have ever written. Because we in Britain chose to eat sheep and spin their wool for clothing, or idolize beef and use the milk of the cow for cheese and butter, we developed methods of farming which, in fact, created the landscape as we know it today.

Yes we did put some species out of business – the wolf and the bear, for instance – we did at least learn to treasure our food animals, improving them, not wiping them out, over the years.

Even though palm trees and azure tropical seas may be in a short supply in the Yorkshire Dales, we – and our animals – have a great deal to be thankful for.

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