The director of Wild Animal Protection at the Guangzhou Forestry Bureau, Lian Junhao, told me that in 2003 Guangzhou alone had two thousand wild flavor restaurants. The Forestry Bureau has regulatory authority over these restaurants, but the number seemed too round to believe. When I pressed him, he admitted, “Nobody really knows how many there are.” I spent an hour in his office and in that time he issued four licenses for new wild flavor restaurants. Before I left, he mentioned that the Forestry Bureau had imposed a ban on selling snakes in Guangzhou, but an hour later I was standing in front of a writhing bag of cobras at a wild flavor stall at Xinyuan market. I counted twenty-five burlap sacks of snakes at this stall alone and there were at least twenty more stalls specializing in snakes in the market.
Ten years ago, when I first visited these markets, there had been about thirty stalls in all, selling a wide variety of wild animals. During that trip I ordered snake, turtle, and boar, all of which went from the seller to the carving board to the pot right before my eyes. The meat was served at a communal table beneath a corrugated-fiberglass roof. The boar was disappointingly flavorless, but the rest—washed down with green beer—was excellent. The atmosphere of the market was genial. Kids chased each other between the animal cages and women sat around on stools, chatting as they washed vegetables. Walking between the stalls, you could look up and see stars.
Now this style of dining, which was once a quaint local custom, had become industrialized. In one cage at Xinyuan I counted fifty-two cats packed so tightly that their guts were spilling out between the wire bars. There were fifty such cages in that stall. There were fifty-two stalls along that row of vendors. There were six rows of vendors in that market. And there were seven markets on that street.
A sharp, musky smell overwhelmed me—the excrement of a thousand different animal species mingling with their panicked breath. I saw at least a dozen types of dogs, including Labradors and Saint Bernards, and there had to be at least as many different breeds of house cat. There were raccoons, dogs, badgers, civets, squirrels, deer, boars, rats, guinea pigs, pangolins, muskrats, ferrets, wild sheep, mountain goats, bobcats, monkeys, horses, ponies, and a camel out in the parking lot. And these were just the mammals. The choice of birds and reptiles was every bit as diverse. Predator was sometimes stacked atop prey. Damaged animals—those that had lost a paw, say—were kept alive with intravenous drips. And because wild animals were more valuable than farm-raised creatures, I was told that some traders would slice off the hind paw of a civet or badger to make it appear to potential buyers that the animal had been trapped in the wild.
I had brought a list of banned animals from the Wild Animal Protection Office. I asked for the rare bird species, the monkeys, the tigers.
“No problem,” I was told by a smiling trader with buckteeth who said he was from Guangxi.
“What about the authorities?” I asked.
“No problem.” He pointed to a fellow in a gray and blue uniform sitting on a white plastic chair, flicking his cigarette ashes by a bag of banned snakes.
“OK, how about mountain lion?”
I decided to push my luck.
“How about panda?”
He shook his head. “You must be sick.”