As 175 countries meet at Doha this week to discuss the future of the world’s endangered species, we look at the animals prized as food in Asia, and why our diets have to change.
A dead Northern bluefin tuna in Spain. A ban on the export of the Atlantic bluefin will be discussed at the CITES conference later this week.
All eyes are on Doha, Qatar this month as delegates meet at CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) to hash over the future of the world’s most endangered species. Here’s a look at what endangered species are served on a plate in Asia, and why we should stop eating them.
Atlantic bluefin tuna
Dished up in: Japan, where slivers of the smooth, palatable fish rank among the most sought after sashimi on the market. The bluefin tuna is also often served fresh in Mediterranean cuisines.
Why it needs to be protected: The enormous appetite for bluefin tuna in Asia and the Mediterranean has seen the species hunted to near extinction. According to CITES, bluefin tuna stock in the Western Atlantic plunged 82 percent over the past 38 years, while the population in the East Atlantic has dwindled to 18 percent of 1970 levels.
“Even if a near-complete ban on all bluefin tuna fishing in the Northeast Atlantic and Mediterranean were implemented and enforced from 2008 to 2022, the population would still probably fall to record lows in the next few years,” CITES points out.
Despite the startling statistics, Japan, which gobbles up three-quarters of the global bluefin catch annually, is not ready to renounce their favorite fish just yet. While the United States and the European Commission look set to outlaw the trade at Qatar this year, Japan recently announced that it won’t comply with any ban.
Dished up in: The meat of this mackerel shark species is mostly shipped to Europe, where it’s prized for its sword-fish like texture, while its fins are in high demand in East Asia for shark fin soup.
Why it needs to be protected: While there is no consistent data on the global catch of the porbeagle, experts say the shark has recently been experiencing a precipitous decline of more than 50 percent in the North and South Atlantic, due to unsustainable fishing.
Market surveys also suggest the existence of an international market for the catch. The large fins are seen as a high value trading product in Indonesia and Hong Kong, according to CITES. Porbeagle fins are also one of the six species commonly traded on the global fin market.
Dished up in: Elephants are mostly poached for their ivory tusks and raw hide. But they are also served as bushmeat in many parts of their range, such as north-east India and Thailand, for its alleged aphrodisiac qualities.
Why they need to be protected: There were 3-5 million African elephants in the 1930s and 1940s, but that number has dropped to between 470,000 and 690,000, WWF estimates.
Thanks to a CITES crackdown on the elephant trade in 1989 and increased conservation, African jumbos, which were perilously close to extinction in the 1980s, have maintained more or less secure a population size in well-conserved zones. But these account for less than 20 percent of the elephants’ range.
However, there is still a sizable black market for elephant parts in Africa, and illegal poaching is thought to be on the rise.
Elephant conservation has become a hotbed for debate at this years’ CITES conference, with Tanzania and Zambia arguing that the one-off sale of their stockpile of confiscated ivory, estimated to be worth US$12 million, will help fund conservation efforts. Other African nations, however, stand firm on the trade ban.
Meanwhile, there are likely less than 25,600 Asian elephants in the wild, according to WWF.
Scalloped hammerhead shark
Dished up in: Eyed by shark fin traders for its large fin size and high needle count, hammerhead fins are in great demand in Chinese markets. Hammerhead is also eaten cured in the Phillipines, Taiwan, and Sri Lanka.
Why it needs to be protected: In a study conducted in 2005, the hammerhead shark population in the northwest Atlantic Ocean plunged 85 percent compared to 1981, from 169,000 down to 24,000. Despite this sheer drop there are no international catch limits on the animal, and few countries regulate hammerhead shark hunting.
Dished up in: Bear parts are a highly valued foodstuff in China, South Korea, Japan and Vietnam. Bear gall bladders and bile are used to cure many ailments in traditional Chinese medicine, while the bear paw is a luxurious delicacy in many Asian cultures.
Why it needs to be protected: All five species of Asian bears, including the brown bear and the Asiatic black bear, are in decline due to hunting for medicine and the loss of habitat, according to the Humane Society of the United States. Little is known about the population size of Asian bear species apart from the fact that they are dwindling. The WWF notes that even local conservationists cannot track the Asiatic black bear in Cambodia, which is part of their natural range.
Legislation on banning bear trade is lax and loosely enforced in Taiwan and China, the Humane Society of the United States says. South Korea and Japan do not regulate the trade in bear parts.
Dished up in: Japan’s appetite for whale meat sashimi is notorious, while Iceland and Norway also hunt the cetacean extensively.
Why it needs to be protected: Despite an international moratorium on commercial whaling since 1986, many species of whales remain at critically endangered levels, notably the North Atlantic right whale. In Japan, whale hunting is often justified as being for scientific research, while Iceland and Norway have openly objected to the ban and continue to hunt comemrcially. The WWF claims that 31,984 whales have been killed due to whaling since the 1986 ban. (A Santa Monica, California-based Japanese restaurant recently made headlines by serving whale meat and now faces U.S. Federal prosecution for “the illegal sale of a marine mammal product for an unauthorized purpose.”)