October 26, 2003
GUANGZHOU, China (Reuters) - Two little boys giggle as they play hide and seek among hundreds of filthy cages packed tight with civet cats, dogs, porcupines and squirrels.
Health experts fear that wild animal markets like this one in southern China's Baiyun district could be the source of the next SARS epidemic that many fear will emerge this winter, but traders and workers here could not be more oblivious.
Amid the stench of death and decay, traders of exotic animals -- a culinary delight for many southern Chinese -- haggle over prices with customers, occasionally turning their attention to their children, pinching their cheeks or tousling their hair.
Narrow passageways are strewn with animal dung, urine, entrails and grimy fodder.
"What's there to be afraid of?" asked Mrs. Huang, carrying her three-month-old daughter on her back. "We have been working and living here for years and we have had no problems."
A few steps away, men with iron pipes clubbed a dog unconscious and slit its throat. Others squatted around another dead dog, plucking it clean of hair with their bare fingers.
Virologists believe that such markets in China and farms where people live in very close proximity to animals are fertile breeding grounds for disease and viruses.
China banned the wild animal trade and shut the markets in May, around the time that scientists in Hong Kong identified viruses in a civet cat and raccoon dog that were almost identical to the SARS virus that had infected more than 8,000 people around the world, killing more than 700 of them.
The finding gave credence to widespread speculation that the virus, which first surfaced in southern China last November, may have jumped the species barrier from animals to humans.
But when Chinese experts failed to verify the report, the trading ban was lifted and the markets reopened in August.
Civet cats, which are not true cats but are related to the cat family, have also returned to the menus of many restaurants in Guangdong, China's most prosperous province.
In February, a doctor from Guangdong infected with SARS traveled to neighboring Hong Kong, one of just hundreds of thousands of people who cross the border each day. Visitors to Hong Kong then unwittingly carried SARS to more than 30 countries around the world.
SARS: ANIMAL VIRUS OR BIOCHEMICAL WEAPON?
Beijing, stung by worldwide criticism after it tried to cover up the initial SARS outbreak, has ordered that all wild animals destined for dinner tables must be reared on farms, where they can be monitored for signs of disease.
But many animals in the Baiyun market were missing limbs, clear indicators that they were trapped in the wild. Left to bleed and confined in cages so small and crowded that they could not move, many were badly infected and barely alive.
Still, animal traders are dismissive of what experts have to say about the possible origins of SARS.
SARS cannot have anything to do with the civet cat or any animal that's sold here. They are a part of our lives and there is no one here I know who has died," said Yang Dong, 25, who has been in the wild animal trade since leaving secondary school.
"I am hardly ever ill and I eat civet cats all the time," he said, flexing his arm muscles proudly.
Standing with one foot on a cage with a civet cat gnawing the sole of his shoe, Yang said of SARS: "I bet it is caused by some biochemical weapon."
However, a recent study in Guangzhou found SARS antibodies in about 13 percent of animal traders, indicating that they had been exposed to the virus. One of many unanswered questions about SARS is whether people with mild or no symptoms can infect others.
The civet cat has long been highly prized for its tender meat, which is reputed to help blood circulation, but there are growing signs that more Chinese believe it could pose a health threat.
An average civet cat, similar in size to a typical house cat, used to command up to 800 yuan ($98). Since the SARS outbreak, they sell for only 200 yuan.
But few medical experts believe that the trade is about to disappear. Demand is especially strong in winter, as Chinese believe that wild animal meat helps keep the body warm.
"It's hard to stop a trade that is so old. If it must go on, then we should have it properly regulated and monitored," said Guan Yi, a microbiologist at the University of Hong Kong.
No one knows how much the wild animal trade is worth, although traders at Baiyun claim over a million yuan a day changes hands. Trader Yang suffered losses for the first time when officials closed the Baiyun market this year.
"I lost over 10,000 yuan. But even I am among the lucky ones. Some of my friends lost several hundred thousand!" Yang said.
"If this trade is stopped permanently, how are we going to survive? So many people and their families depend on it."