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Sharks are innocent victims of a pointless appetite

  • Source: Global Times
  • [22:02 October 19 2009]
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By Robert Foyle Hunwick

Stephen Fry, the ubiquitous British actor, author and comedian, riled up the Chinese public recently with a casual aside on eating habits. "If you care about lions and tigers and whales and sharks, it is the Far East […] that seems to be the biggest threat," he decreed at a UK literary festival.

Fry, often described either as "a national treasure" or "the most annoying man in Britain," is influential enough that the Chinese embassy felt obliged to roll out a rebuttal.

Whatever you think of Fry, he's right when it comes to the wholesale consumption of dishes such as shark's fin and bird's nests soups. Traditional delicacies though they are, they inevitably lead to the exploitation and possible extinction of the species who make up the ingredients.

China isn't the only country at fault when it comes to animal rights. Although the UK is a nation of animal lovers, there still exist pockets of resistance over issues such as fox hunting, grey areas where perceived animal cruelty is defended on cultural grounds. It's the same in Spain with its bullfights or France with its foie gras, and even the US has issues with greyhound racing.

With China, perhaps, the difference is the scale: Although shark's fin (yuchi) is hardly a regular fixture on the dinner table, it's still a big money-spinner, especially in places like Hong Kong and Shanghai where entire streets are devoted to its consumption.

The fin (like bird's nest) is not particularly tasty, getting most of its flavor from the meat broth it's cooked in. Its main claim to fame is an "interesting consistency." There is also much talk of supposed medicinal properties, although apart from protein, it has few exceptional nutrients, and actually contains dangerously high levels of mercury.

Moreover, its extravagant price means it's a favorite for status-hungry parvenus to flaunt their wealth, making their consumption seem even more tokenistic and hollow.

According to the UN, the annual death toll for this broth is 100 million and many activists reckon the actual figure is nearer double.

That's across 400 species, where the population of some is now a tenth of what it was 15 years ago.

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