The root of today’s problem began in the late 1970s, when China embarked on an unusual agricultural experiment of wildlife farming. The country had passed through two decades of severe economic distress, including famine and food shortages, under Chairman Mao Zedong’s communist rule. As part of sweeping rural reforms, the collective farming system was abandoned.
While the ultimate goal was to liberalize and industrialize the agricultural economy, the weakened state had little money to invest in scaling up livestock production. Instead, farmers were encouraged to collect wild animals—rats, civets, snakes, bats and others—and breed them for home consumption and commercial markets.
More recently, these wild foods have dovetailed with widespread cultural beliefs around the curative powers of bear bile, pangolin scales and other products employed in traditional Chinese medicine, or TCM. Kang, who grew up in China, explains that while medicinal use of wild animal products has long held a central role in Chinese medicine, historically, consumption as food was restricted to nobility. But in recent years, consuming wild meat has become a status symbol, with thousands of years of cultural history behind it.
Even as China modernized and scaled up livestock production—it is the world’s largest pork consumer—the wild animal markets have continued to be popular among a small subset of culinary adventure-seekers. The phenomenon is largely regional—a 2014 study found that 83 percent of Guangzhou residents had consumed wild animals in the previous year, while in Beijing only 5 percent had.
But this came at a cost, as live markets became linked to the spread of multiple new infectious diseases, jumping from animals to humans.