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May 29, 2013

Slaughter by Superstition

Why would anyone pay a small fortune for tiny bits of rhino’s horn, tiger’s eyeball, dog’s penis, monkey’s head, turtle’s blood and pickled rat fetus?

In the March issue, we ran a feature by Mike Mazur (“The Best There Ever Were”) about 10 legendary fisheries that changed our sport. One of those 10 was dedicated to the totuava, an amazing seatroutlike croaker that can grow to well over 200 pounds.

Before sport fishermen could ever really develop a fishery for the unique species, found only in the very shallow northern Sea of Cortez, Mexican netters decimated them in short order last century. At the same time, water managers were busy striking the species a final blow, by damming up the mighty Colorado River, so water critical to the Cortez estuary could satisfy the unquenchable thirst of Las Vegas and L.A., and by diverting much of the remaining flow to the fields of big-agriculture interests.

In 1942, netters harvested a peak catch of nearly 5 million pounds of totuava; by the 1950s, they were all but gone.

Fast-forward to 2013. Totuava have been protected for decades, but habitat degradation remains, and only a skeleton population has hung on.

But something has changed. Now, a single totuava can be worth $10,000 to $20,000, and the fractional population of totuava in the Cortez is once again under attack. The effort and risk to find and harvest them have become very worthwhile indeed.

The catalyst for this editorial came from news reports of the latest bust near San Diego that ­uncovered 27 totuava swim bladders, unbelievably worth well over $3 million once they reach Asia.

Such insane black-market sales don’t extend to the fishes’ meat; apparently that’s often left to rot on the beach.

Why, you might wonder, would anyone pay ­thousands of dollars for a few ounces of a fish’s dried swim bladder?

While you’re at it, you could well ask why anyone would pay a small fortune for tiny bits of rhino’s horn, tiger’s eyeball, dog’s penis, monkey’s head, turtle’s blood, pickled rat fetus, bird’s beak, and on and on.

They’re all consumed by people — mostly in Asia, and predominantly in China and Hong Kong — variously as aphrodisiacs, to lengthen lifespan or as remedies for any sort of ailment (often including cancer).

You can add manta ray gill rakers to that list, also. That’s because a fair percentage of China’s 1.3 billion population believes that the gill rakers of manta and mobula rays can do everything from cleanse the blood to cure cancer, and will pay up to $500 per kilogram (about $225 per pound) if they can find the stuff.

Not surprisingly, that demand now threatens manta and mobula rays, which recently received protected status from the international agency that monitors endangered species. But enforcement remains minimal; the slaughter is likely to continue.

That brings me back to totuava — and a sense of disgust for the slaughter of a species based on ­mostly mindless superstition.

I don’t deny that some natural remedies from wild animals might be ­effective, but a great many are just macabre and, without any scientific validation, hardly justify the killing off of so many species.

Modern science offers real hope for the many ailments that purveyors of animal parts claim to cure — and often at less cost than bile of bear or stomach of porcupine (yes, you can buy both in China). Often, a dose of ibuprofen will do far more good.

Before the mail starts rolling in to label me as “culturally insensitive,” I am not a xenophobe, and in fact have appreciated (since my Peace Corps days) how various societies function well with very different cultures and mores.

And I understand that many remedies requiring parts of wild animals are based on tradition. That’s all well and good, but traditionally there weren’t anywhere near a billion people on the planet, let alone in one country. And traditionally, people didn’t have the alternative of modern medicine, which has proved reliably effective.

Slavery was a tradition. So was drowning “witches.” And stoning people to death. As the world changes, some traditions become obsolete. Some need to, and none more urgently than the practice of slaughtering species into extinction to satisfy intransigent primitive superstitions.