China Takes Pangolin and Whale Shark Off the Menu

When I unknowingly took my first slurp of shark fin soup -- as a kid at a fancy banquet in Singapore -- I wondered if maybe I was eating vermicelli covered in mucus: chewy, salty, and a little slimy. There's really not much going on flavor-wise. (After all, it's just boiled cartilage.) Yet this bland, mildly disgusting dish is a fixture at Chinese banquets the world over, along with numerous endangered species you've probably never seen outside of a zoo -- or in this case, an aquarium.

So why do people eat this stuff? For one, practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine believe some exotic animals can cure everything from cancer to the common cold. Another factor is cultural norms. Putting on an incredibly ostentatious (aka endangered animal-filled) dinner to celebrate weddings or business deals is a way of showing respect to your guests. As Chinese society grows richer, this tradition is only growing more common, pushing species like sharks and pangolins to the brink of extinction.

But last week the Chinese government began to foster a backlash on this trend of eating rare animals. Now you can get 10 years in the slammer for buying or selling 420 different endangered land and aquatic species for food. So order carefully ... because pangolins, golden monkeys, moon bears, tigers, rhinos, lots of turtles, and some species of sharks are all technically off limits.

I say technically because nobody knows exactly what this new ban means. All 420 of these species were already protected from hunting or trading. This law basically just extends the penalty to 10 years in prison, and applies it not just to traffickers, but to people who eat the animals, too. The problem is China has never properly enforced the law that already exists, and whether the new ban will have any teeth remains to be seen.

There's also this gaping loophole: Captive-bred endangered species are still kosher, so to speak. Sorry moon bears, you do not get to go home. Those inhumane bear bile farms will remain open, and wildlife traffickers can continue to pass off wild-caught bears as farm-raised. China's list of endangered species also doesn't include the more common shark species, so fins from endangered animals could be intentionally mislabeled on a menu.

But in the absence of adequate (or any) legal enforcement, placing a social stigma on certain rare food items might help decrease demand. After all, the Communist Party of China still considers itself the moral authority of the country, and carries a certain amount of weight in shaping public opinion and behavior.

And the government is leading by example. Last December it issued a ban on shark fin and other exotic animal dishes served at state banquets. And this latest ban encourages the public to follow suit: If China's leaders can't eat endangered species, why should you? Putting the onus on diners by criminalizing the purchase is an important step forward, according to Fan Zhiyong, Director of WWF China's species program.

So if you're concerned with keeping up with the Joneses (or the Jiangs), not serving shark -- or pangolin or bear -- at your next big event could be the new "harmonious" thing to do -- or at least, it's what Yao Ming would do.