Another day, another endangered animal becomes a meal for Chinese bureaucrats.
More than a dozen Chinese police officers have been suspended following an investigation by Guangzhou's Southern Metropolis Daily, which sent a team of undercover journalists to a Shenzhen seafood restaurant where 28 diners—including current and former officers—had gathered for an "opulent dinner."
Among other items on the 5,400 yuan ($864) menu was a critically endangered giant salamander.
Posing as waiters, the journalists recorded one of the attendees stating, "In my territory, [the salamander] is my treat. I chose this because it is unique while it is under my control ... And it is safe here." The attendee who brought the salamander, along with two cases of rice wine, claimed that it was captive-bred in Guizhou Province. The journalists also reported seeing guests being given gift bags of fish as they left—fish that an official said were taken from a protected reservoir where fishing is illegal.
When the reporters began taking photos and exposed their true identities, things turned violent. According to the Global Times, "one of [the journalists] was kicked and slapped while another was robbed of his cell phone, leaving his hands bleeding. The photographer was choked and beaten up, while his camera was smashed."
The South China Morning Post reports that giant salamanders can command prices as high as 2,000 yuan ($320) per kilogram on the black market, as their meat is alleged—though by no means proven—to have therapeutic properties. The Chinese giant salamander is the largest amphibian in the world, growing up to 50 kilograms and nearly six feet in length, though most never reach that size. While once widespread in China, the salamander's population has rapidly declined in the last 60 years due to habitat destruction and hunting.
Speaking to the BBC, Chinese food expert Fuchsia Dunlop noted that, much like tiger penises and pangolins, giant salamanders have a place in the "cult of the exotic" in Chinese cuisine and medicine. Dunlop cautioned, however, that we shouldn't single out the Chinese for wiping out entire species for the sake of a meal, comparing the desire for such delicacies to "the Japanese and their habit of bluefin tuna—which is also being hunted to extinction—and the fact that almost anyone who eats fish is eating fish harvested by the most environmentally destructive fishing practices."
That's not to say that China is entirely ignoring the problem. Last year, the Chinese government passed an initiative that would mandate up to ten years of jail time for the sale or consumption of rare wild animals, including 420 different species such as golden monkeys, Asian black bears, and pangolins (which are still a major commodity on the black market). In 2012, China also ordered that the controversial dish shark fin soup no longer be served at its government banquets. Part of it may be due to sudden pangs of environmental conscience, but it also has a lot to do with President Xi Jinping's anti-corruption initiatives that have put any signs of decadence in the ruling party's crosshairs.
The doomed giant salamander who became dinner for the cops serves as an unfortunate symbol that China's reputation of government opulence and self-exception has yet to be reigned in—even if it appears, somewhat fittingly, in the form of feasting on a giant, slimy amphibian.