People have been hunting wild animals for food since ancient times. Even today, there are areas where this hunt means livelihoods for local people. For example, in rural areas of Central Africa, meat from wildlife accounts for up to 80% of protein intake. Hunting for food can be sustainable in the long run and does not have to be damaging, but sometimes, unfortunately, its impacts are far-reaching. Some species have been completely wiped out as a result of hunting for meat, such as the great auk, a non-flying North Atlantic bird which served as a source of meat for sailors. Auks had been hunted for a few centuries before the last one was killed in 1844. The same fate has met the passenger pigeon, once the most abundant bird of North America. Millions of these pigeons were a source of cheap meat, mostly for slaves – a killed pigeon was sold for 2 cents. In less than a hundred years, they were wiped out. The last specimen died at a zoo in 1914. There is certainly plenty of similar examples.
Worldwide, people consume various species of animals including rare and endangered ones. Satisfying of hunger is not the only reason why humans eat animals – it also involves various delicacies and diversification of diet. Some food has hundreds of years of history (caviar), but sometimes it is a relatively modern habit (Cypriot ambelopoulia, ray gills). Today's delicacies can be originally based on overcoming an emergency where people simply ate all they found (food from frogs and snails in Europe), or, on the contrary, it can be an extreme snobbery (Slavic tongues). Consumption of a certain food is a part of traditions or religions of some nations (food consumed during fasting), and links with mystical affairs, magic and superstitions are also emerging. It can be very special “goodies” that no one else would ever consume (rotten auks in the Arctic). If culinary use is tied to historical or cultural customs, it is very difficult to be eradicated or changed. The modern problem is the consumption of certain species as a symbol of luxury, wealth and the status of power.
Probably the most well-known problem is the so-called bushmeat, which means hunting wild animals for meat. This is primarily an issue of Africa, but the problem is growing in other parts of the world as well (Asia, Latin America). In Africa, virtually everything is hunted for meat – the largest volume of bushmeat consists of porcupines, rodents and small antelopes. But primates including apes are also hunted, as well as elephants, crocodiles, lizards, smaller mammals (flying foxes, pangolins, etc.) and birds. Even rare and protected species are hunted. Hunters use snares, guns, hunting dogs, and even poisoned baits (local people mistakenly believe that poisons such as carbofuran are destroyed by boiling, and therefore consume the flesh of poisoned animals without worries, yet possible consequences are not being recorded anywhere...).
Bushmeat has always meant a livelihood for local communities. As long as it was consumed only locally, it was not such a major problem. However, hunting is now facilitated by building new roads and highways (often Chinese investments) that allow to access areas where it used to be difficult to get. Thanks to the roads, easier transport to cities has been facilitated, opening new outlets. Therefore, there is still more and more hunting. For city dwellers, bushmeat is a luxury and a delicacy, a symbol of status and wealth. Demand for it is high, so it is easily sold in cities, and many village communities are economically dependent on the earnings. Men hunt and transport the meat to the market or to towns, women usually sell it. Only in Cameroon, 2.3 million tonnes of bushmeat, including meat from protected species, are sold every day.
Unfortunately, animal hunting for bushmeat is currently absolutely unsustainable – it destroys entire animal populations, reduces biodiversity and disrupts natural processes in the ecosystem. Illegal hunting causes what is called “empty forest” syndrome – larger animal species are absent in the hunted-out forest, which can have unimaginable consequences, many of which we cannot estimate today (for example, pollination and dispersal of seeds of some tree species is disabled).
Trade in turtle meat has serious impacts on nature. China, in particular, is infamous for its use of turtles – ¾ freshwater turtles in Asia are now threatened because of China’s demand (many species of turtles had to be included in the CITES lists). China has virtually wiped out its turtle species and it now acts as a vacuum pump – over 1,300 tonnes of turtles are imported from neighbouring countries to China every year. In Asia, also the meat of sea turtles is consumed, which also serves, for example, for the Hindu ceremonies in Bali. Sea turtle eggs are considered a delicacy and in many places of the world they are consumed also during fasting. Massive collections of eggs take place in Southeast Asia and Central America. Sea turtles cannot be artificially farmed (difficult farming conditions), but in the Caribbean there is so-called “hatching” – a collection of eggs, which are partly left to hatch and are released back into the sea, and partly sold for food. Well known is a Costa Rican project in the Ostional area using the “arribada” phenomenon – tens of thousands of female sea turtles swim to certain beaches together to lay eggs. Since 1987, collection of eggs has been allowed in Ostional in the first 36 hours of the arribada (the collection is forbidden in other parts of Costa Rica). However, some conservationists criticize the project because the legal sale opens the egg market and covers illegal collections from other areas.
The bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus) is one of the largest fish of our planet, reaching 2.5 m in length, weighing hundreds of kilograms (up to 1 tonne), and unfortunately, having very tasty meat. Fishermen have been fishing tuna for centuries, but surprisingly, already the ancient Romans realized that hunting must have certain limits. Feeding the Roman legions, however, was by no means a threat to tuna populations, unlike the current global market.
Tuna is today one of the most valuable fish. Tuna fishing has been taken over by huge fishing fleets that use radars, sonars or reconnaissance planes, and hunt with circular nets. The biggest buyer is Japan, where nearly all world catches end to be used in sushi. The crazy hunt for tuna has been driven by an insatiable demand for tuna meat (despite containing over-limit quantities of mercury and heavy metals because tuna stands at the top of the food chain). In 2017, 212 kg of tuna was auctioned in Tokyo for 16.3 million CZK.
In medieval Russia, sturgeons were hunted mainly for meat. Pressed eggs (pájusnaja ikra) were a food of the poor; it was served sliced and its price was similar to the price of butter. A sturgeon spinal cord was considered a delicacy and was added to a soup. Another valuable raw material was also isinglass – a substance derived by cooking dried swim bladders, which served as a glue and for the production of home jellies (precursor of gelatine). Fishermen were sending sturgeons from the Volga river to the Tsar Ivan The Terrible, loaded on wagons in the straw with their mouths wrapped in a cloth soaked in vodka to keep the fish fresh during the long journey to Moscow. In the Russian Tsardom, sturgeon populations were used in a relatively “sustainable” way. The Imperial Decrees restricted the hunting season, regulated the trade in meat and caviar, and so-called salt taxes were levied by special collectors. The fishermen themselves (mainly the Cossacks) were taking care of the hunting restrictions in order to avoid overfishing of the sturgeon population. The main hunting areas were the Caspian Sea and Astrakhan. Consumption of sturgeons was restricted to the areas of their existence for centuries and did not spread further. Transportation of salted fish and caviar across Russia was difficult – wooden barrels were used, but the cargo was rapidly getting bad and there was no interest in it. The old Italian proverb says, “Who eats caviar, eats salt, dung and flies,” which is probably related to spoiled consignments from Russia.
Three times the sturgeons approached the extinction and three times they were rescued (Great October Socialist Revolution and World War I, World War II and artificial hatcheries), while their numbers plummeted after the collapse of the USSR and the arrival of capitalism and the “market economy”. After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, there was a chaos. Russia, Dagestan, the Kalmyk Republic and Kazakhstan were around the Caspian Sea, and the caviar production cartel collapsed. The production was taken over by private companies owned by “caviar barons”, and caviar mafias were created. Thousands of poachers, the so-called “buccaneers”, went on the rivers. The caviar got cheaper (even caviar from dead fish was used) and poachers became the main suppliers. Buccaneers surrendered the caviar to a member of the trafficking gang that sent it further. An absurd cycle started – the federal Fishing police arrested the poachers, the judges then released them, the customs took bribes and sold the goods themselves... In 1995, there was even a collision of the Fishing police with corrupted normal police, and in 1996 the caviar mafia in the Dagestan bombed directly the headquarters of the Fishing police. The bomb explosion killed 86 people (including the families of policemen who lived in the building) and the Fishing police was virtually wiped out of the world.
For the production of caviar, the most often used fish are beluga, Russian sturgeon and sevriuga. After a fish is caught, “ikrjančik” – master of caviar – comes. The female’s stomach is cut and the extracted eggs are carefully pushed through a sieve to be separated from each other. Then a salt solution is mixed, the ratio of which is a secret of every ikrjančik. To these days, sturgeon caviar is handled this way. Dead fish eggs must not be used (the caviar must be processed within 15 minutes after killing a fish) because decomposing enzymes destroy the eggs. Because of the risk of being revealed, poachers control their nets only once in a few days, so they take also dead fish – however, such a caviar is very bad.
The problem has been growing across Africa, but the situation is critical particularly in the countries of Central and West Africa where around 2.5 million tonnes of bushmeat are consumed annually. In the Congo Basin, it is even around 5 million tonnes per year (almost equivalent to the annual beef production in Brazil). Countries with military problems and a volatile political situation, such as Cameroon, Gabon, the Central African Republic or the Congo, are particularly problematic.
The hidden threat of bushmeat is the risk of transmission of diseases. In the poor areas of Africa, there are no refrigerators or freezers. The meat quickly spoils in the heat so it either has to be quickly consumed or dried and smoked. However, in addition to possible food poisoning and intestinal infections, consumption of bushmeat may have even worse consequences. Some animal species carry diseases such as Ebola, HIV/AIDS, SIV, etc. These infections persist in poorly cooked or dried meat and can spread through the bushmeat trade.
Because of the enormous demand, a German company sent a representative to America, where sturgeons occur as well, to explore their possibilities. And the reports were stunning – the Delaware and Hudson rivers were crowded with migrating sturgeons, and bays of the big lakes were full of sturgeons cumulating there. Except for the Indians, almost nobody hunted sturgeons in America and no one was interested in them. Randomly caught sturgeons were sold as fertilizer or as meat for slaves, eggs were thrown to pigs just like in Europe before. The Germans, with their own business spirit, immediately reacted. Around the year of 1860, the company expanded to America to the city of Caviar located on the Delaware river. A caviar fever with all the attributes of gold fever in Alaska started. It was short and intense – it lasted for 30 years and then it came to an end. The rivers were overfished and heavily polluted, sturgeons disappeared. Human greed is able to completely exterminate populations of an animal that people are interested in in a short time. The crash occurred around 1900 and is related to one more interesting thing – the invention of a can. In desperate attempts to maintain caviar production, the Americans had been struggling with decreasing amounts of caviar and not being able to fill the traditional packs in barrels. Therefore, being inspired by packing of tomatoes into glasses, they started using smaller packaging and they invented a can in 1906...
Another relief for the sturgeons was World War II – again people had other concerns than hunting sturgeons as a luxury delicacy. After the war, however, the Soviet Union began constructing dams, which disturbed migration routes of sturgeons in the rivers, and so the fish could not reach their usual mating grounds. Added to this, discharges of toxic waste from the factories started, and the sturgeons seemed to be again on the brink of extinction. In 1959, however, Soviet laboratories invented the first artificial hatcheries, which started to produce small fish and release them into the rivers. It was a great success – sturgeons rose from the dead again, which is something that no other country has ever done. Sadly, the Soviets did not quite bother with genetics and created a variety of hybrids (breeds such as “bester” – a hybrid of beluga and sterlet sturgeon, which was as big as beluga, but matured earlier as a sterlet, which means they produced caviar sooner). They also invented manual “milking” of females, i.e. sucking eggs from females, but only a few animals were used for the production, so the population consisted of related individuals.
Even in Czech restaurants, you can meet a meat of protected animals, such as crocodile steaks or crocodile burgers. This is the meat from crocodile farms, and although it is often possible to argue about the ethics and conditions of these farms, it cannot be denied that crocodile farms are one of the examples where farm breeding has helped to save species in the wild. Crocodile farms are nowadays present in many countries of the world (there was an attempt to build a crocodile farm even in the Czech Republic, specifically in Jevišovice near Znojmo, but the farm went bankrupt because there was no demand for the meat) and the demand for skins and meat is fully saturated from their sources. Only young animals are used (an old crocodile is stiff), the finest meat is obtained from the tail. The crocodile meat is served in various ways and it is not a cheap food – one serving usually costs tens of dollars.
In Japan, China and Taiwan, even a tuna eye is considered a special delicacy. Eyes wrapped in plastic foil are available in most grocery stores and marketplaces. The eye is served as a sausage or briefly cooked. Mediterranean specialties (Italy, France, Tunisia, Greece) are dried tuna eggs called bottarga, which were consumed already in ancient Egypt.
Theoretically, tuna fishing is managed by an international commission that sets quotas, but they are not respected. Tuna has not even been included in CITES or under any protection, because a strong fishing lobby, especially from China and Japan, will always thwart any attempts in this matter. While politicians, scientists and fishing companies are arguing, tuna is rapidly vanishing (the population in the Pacific has even dropped to 3% of the original number). No one knows what happens when the tuna disappears. It does not mean that someone will not have the favourite salad, but that we do not know how complicated role these predators play in the ecosystem and what their disappearance will do with the structure of marine life.
Around 40-100 million sharks are caught every year (20-30 of these animals are killed every 10 seconds), and the worldwide hunting yield is about 0.5 billion USD. Sharks are mainly fished for fins that are considered a delicacy in Asia. The most valuable shark is the hammerhead shark, fins of which are the most expensive. One kilogram of dried shark fins costs 700 USD in China, one serving of shark fin soup about 100 USD – for prestigious reasons, this expensive soup is often served at weddings (but it is completely tasteless, more or less just a collagen). On the contrary, meat of sharks is cheap (it costs about 1 USD/kg). The shark heart is added to sushi, shark liver oil is supposed to strengthen immunity, which is apparently based on the fact that sharks do not have cancer (but this has not been scientifically proven). Interestingly, this belief is not widespread only in Asia – shark liver oil for immunity boosting is commonly available in the Czech Republic as well. The largest shark fin market is in Hong Kong, but fins are also imported to the EU, especially to cities with Chinese areas (Chinatowns).
Intensive shark fishing takes place all over the world, most notably in Asia and South America. It's a good business, so the main exporters of the shark fins are the Latin-American mafias. Fins of caught sharks are cut off and the rest of the body is thrown back into the water. It is not allowed to hunt sharks for their fins, but it is legal to sell sharks that are “accidentally” entangled in nets used for hunting other fish. It is not surprising that the numbers of “random” catches are rising... In Ecuador, the export of shark fins has increased over the last 10 years (200 tonnes of fins are exported annually, all reported as “random” catches).
In response to the situation, some airlines such as American Airlines have banned transport of shark fins. The EU and many other countries have introduced a “fins on the body” rule, according to which ships are only allowed to transport entire shark bodies. There are large-scale awareness campaigns against the consumption of shark fins, see e.g. the Wild Aid organization Wild Aid, involving Chinese celebrities (Chinese basketball player Yao Ming, Prince William, etc.).
A completely new culinary trend is the consumption of gill plates of large Manta and Mobula rays. It is Asia again where this food has become a delicacy in recent years. The price of 1 kg of gills from large manta rays is 130-250 USD. Due to the demand, manta hunting has increased in all tropical seas, and these rays thus had to be included in the CITES Appendix II.
Another Asian “delicacy” is the swim bladder of the totoaba fish (Totoaba Macdonaldi) living in the Gulf of California. In China, the bladders are cooked in the same way as soup, which supposedly increases fertility. Bladder prices are astronomical – one bladder can cost up to 10,000 USD; in 2013, 200 bladders were sold for 3.6 million USD. Totoaba has been hunted in the US and Mexico since the 1920s, and its population has been declining, so the hunting is increasingly intense. Fishermen use giant static nets which, however, have catastrophic effects on another creature ¬– vaquita. Vaquita is a small dolphin, an endemic species of the Gulf of California and currently the most endangered marine mammal in the world. It is extremely susceptible to nets for hunting totoabas and shrimps in which it gets entangled and consequently drowns. There are about 30 last vaquitas left in the wild, and the chance that they will survive is almost zero.
The European specific is illegal trade in eels. This does not seem so, but it is an extensive black market with multi-million turnovers, involving organized criminal networks. Thanks to its sophistication, it is being compared to the ivory trade, but as eels are not as popular and iconic animals, only little is known about the trade. The life cycle of this fish is crucial – it lives in rivers but reproduces in the sea. The European eel swims to reproduce to the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic Ocean, where it reproduces and dies. The larva (“glass eel”) is driven by the Gulf Stream back to Europe. Glass eels arrive in different times of the year, but the main fishing season is from October to June (the peak is in February) and at this time the black market is blooming. During the dark nights, glass eels swim into rivers where it gradually changes into yellow eels. In a few years, glass eels will grow into an adult stage (silver eel). Thanks to this life cycle, eels cannot be kept in captivity. Nobody has ever been able to reproduce an eel and make it grow into an adult fish.
Glass eels are now severely poached, the traffickers buy them from poachers and smuggle them from Europe to China. But they are live fish that are not just that easy to handle – the only option is air transport, which has to be very fast. You need to get to the destination within 48 hours, otherwise the eels will die, and the business is over. In a plastic bag with water, glass eels consume oxygen very quickly, so smugglers have invented sophisticated methods of keeping them alive. They are smuggled in suitcases with oxygenating machines, or in cargo shipments where it is declared as shrimps or other fish. In Spain and France, there have been several raids on criminal groups (Operation Black Glass, Abaia, Lake, etc.), where dozens of people including Chinese buyers were arrested. Tonnes of glass eels were confiscated and huge amounts of money that was paid for glass eels in cash. Even companies legally trading fish were involved. The traffickers had special houses near the airports in Madrid and Lisbon where they were preparing glass eels for transport.
When sending glass eels from airports in Spain and France started to be dangerous, a route was created via Italy and Greece... Illegal trade is simply very flexible and adapts to the situation.
Eels are being hunted for food, but it is interesting that their blood is toxic (toxins are destroyed by cooking). In Europe, they are eaten smoked, fried, stewed or as a jelly... Jellied eels are a specialty in London, eels are sold in angulas cans. In Japan, China and Korea, there is a popular dish called cabayaki / unagi – a marinated, or also steamed or grilled eel. Glass eels are eaten as well – with pasta or in a salad.
In the past 50 years, the eel numbers have fallen by 90% and it has been talked about a population collapse. There are more reasons – it is due to the impenetrability of migration flows (due to hydroelectric power plants, eels can no longer naturally arrive in many places in the rivers), the introduction of parasite Anguillicoloides crassus that is decimating the European eel population, and excessive hunting due to the demand for glass eels.
The main captures take place on the coast of the Bay of Biscay, where glass eels arrive from the Atlantic (Spain, France, Portugal, UK). They are hunted with trawl nets. The largest catches were in 2002 (300 tonnes), but catches have been decreasing as the eel population declines (100 tonnes in 2008, 30 tonnes in 2017), with 80% of the glass eel catches going to Asia.
Due to the decline in population, the European eel has been included in the IUCN Red List (“Critically Endangered” category) in 2008 and in CITES II (2009). There are quotas for hunting, but alongside licensed fishing companies there are hundreds of organized poachers’ gangs. Captured glass eels are transported by tanker lorries with water oxygenators. They are placed in European aquaculture facilities to be fed and released into rivers (eels would otherwise not get to upper streams due to migration barriers). Even Czech fishermen buy glass eels and plant them in the Czech rivers – otherwise, no eels would live in the Czech Republic. However, part of the glass eels caught is also intended for direct consumption. Although any export of eels from the EU has been banned since 2010, sale within EU is still possible. This situation is causing problems – part of glass eels is legal, but part is poached. How to distinguish between them? Trade is allowed in the EU, but not across borders. How to guard it?
Very controversial is the French dish ortolans à la provençale, which was consumed already by the Romanesque nobility in the 11th century. It's a roasted ortolan bunting, and the controversy is not even in baking a bird in the oven like but in what is going on before it. The captured bunting is placed in a small box, so that it cannot move, and is intensely fattened (in the past, birds also used to be blinded with a pin). The goal is to increase the weight by roughly 2-4 times, the diet is selected according to how you want the bird to taste. Eventually, the bunting is killed by being drowned in Armagnac. It is important to immerse the beak correctly so the bird sucks as much fluid into the body as possible and gets marinated from inside. Then it is baked for 6-8 minutes. Do you still think that only Chinese are capable of such cruelties?
Since 1999, ortolans à la provençale has been officially banned in the EU, but the tradition remains, and this food is still illegally served (the price of a portion is more than 100 EUR). Some French chefs are strongly opposed to the ban, among the biggest opponents is, for example, Alain Ducasse, whose restaurants have collected 18 Michelin stars. Annually, over 1,500 cases of bird hunting are documented annually in the Aquitaine region, with about 30,000 buntings being captured.
France figured it out already in the 1960s when rivers started to spoil because of harvesting frogs. France solved this problem by forbidding hunting of frogs, but instead of French stopping eating them, they started importing them from abroad. First, from India and Bangladesh, but even there the rivers began to spoil. It was even estimated that exported frogs would consume 200,000 tonnes of insect pests per year in India. India therefore banned the export of its frogs in 1987, Bangladesh in 1989. Now the frogs are being exported from Indonesia... How long will it take the Indonesian authorities before they realize it a wrong path? Frog farming is not a good solution because frog breeding facilities are susceptible to transmission of fungi and infections, and it is also financially unprofitable (food for tadpoles is expensive). Therefore, breeding frogs in captivity is not a solution. And what if French and the Belgians stopped eating them?
The true caviar is made from eggs of sturgeons of the order Acipenseriformes and it belongs to very expensive snacks (1,000-2,000 USD/kg). It was not always such a symbol of luxury, it used to be rather a food of the poor. The repute of a delicacy and a certain mystique that accompanies its consumption did not appear until the 19th century, and they are linked to Tsardom Russia and the mysterious Russian aristocracy. In 2004, Inga Saffron published a book “Caviar: The Strange History and Uncertain Future of the World’s Most Coveted Delicacy”, which is definitely worth reading.
Sturgeons are archaic fish of the northern hemisphere (about 27 species). They live in the sea, but they return to reproduce to upper parts of rivers where they hatched themselves. The eggs form up to 15% of a female’s weight – in 1770 a large beluga weighing 1,144 kg, out of which 410 kg were eggs, was caught (at today’s caviar price this fish would be worth 0.5 million USD). A small fish hatched from an egg then wanders a river back to the sea where it matures. Sturgeons are long-living fish – they start breeding at the age of about 20 years and can live for up to 100 years. They grow their whole life – the largest recorded sturgeon was beluga (probably male) captured in 1736, measuring 8.5 meters.
In earlier times, sturgeons were abundant in rivers. Recordings indicate that the Volga river used to be blocked by the mass of migrating sturgeons... During traditional hunting, systems of baits on hooks (rotten meat) were used, and 100 years ago, the delta of the Danube river was literally overflowing with hooks. Since the end of the 19th century, fixed monophilic nets have been used for fishing, but sturgeon hunting is not easy as pulling a net with such a weight is a physically highly demanding teamwork.
Sturgeons naturally occurred also in European rivers, but caviar was never produced in Europe. Apparently, nobody had ever thought about it. European fishermen hunted sturgeons for delicious meat, but the eggs were always thrown away or given as food to pigs. Captured fish were usually surrendered to feudal lords. For example, King Edward II of England declared all sturgeons in England the property of his own pantry (14th century), as did the Danish and the Spanish King. In the 19th century, Europe noticed that the caviar belonged to the delicacies of the Russian Tsar and nobility, and attractiveness of caviar steeply increased. It became a delicacy with an aristocratic touch. Wealthy people, who had money but not a noble title, were absolutely fascinated by caviar. It is quite a common phenomenon, when many people think that if they have the same things or behave just like any unreachable category, they will join it (not just in the case of caviar). Caviar demand was rising rapidly, but the question was where to obtain it in sufficient quantities. European rivers had already been without fish and, absurdly, something that had previously been thrown to the pigs started to be imported for a lot of money.
The beginning of the end of sturgeons is related to the moment when a way to pack, preserve and transport it over long distances without spoiling was invented. Refrigerators and artificial cooling systems, the discovery of pasteurization and the development of railways (faster transport) have become the main factors that have taken sturgeons to the brink of extinction.
After the crash in America, caviar companies moved back to Astrakhan. The Germans introduced their branch there and began with small cans. Since 1913, the Caspian Sea had been the world’s leading supplier of caviar. Sturgeons had been there for a long time – 28,000 tonnes were caught in 1913. Greed once again prevailed over common sense, the hunt continued to rise, and companies even enforced the permission to hunt at sea. Originally, they only hunted in the rivers and their estuaries, and a part of sturgeon population that was not migrating was safe in the sea and young fish managed to mature. By hunting at sea, however, sturgeons in the Caspian Sea were decimated.
The relief came paradoxically in the form of the Great October Socialist Revolution (1917) – for more than 10 years, sturgeons were safe because people had other worries. The population managed to recover. The Bolsheviks quickly realized that caviar was a profitable business and nationalized companies, ships and cannery, which did not go without bloody fights of the Cossacks in Astrakhan. Lenin’s government created a monopoly, the caviar was designed only for the privileged, and it was a source of hard currency for the Soviet Union.
Asia, where a large number of snakes are processed for food. Snake meat is considered healthy, with a minimum of fat. Rituals are common (mainly with cobras) – in China, a living snake is first introduced to society, “accepting” of its blood in a glass of rice brandy takes place before the snake is eaten, and swallowing a still beating snake heart supposedly encourages manhood. The operation of many snake restaurants is also stimulated by the interest of tourists looking for such experiences. A lot of snakes are also eaten in the US where 1 kg of rattlesnake meat costs about 20 USD.
Meat from animals hunted for hunting trophies, such as bears, is sometimes used. In the EU, it is possible to buy canned bear meat (about 25 EUR) or bear lard, or bear meat can be ordered in some restaurants.
How many of you like tuna? Favourite is salad with tuna, tuna pasta, tuna sushi. We even feed cats with it – lots of cat food cans contain tuna meat... Few people know, however, that commercial fishing has reduced the number of this fish to 15% of the original population, while somewhere the tuna is completely extinct. The tragic story of tuna is one of the examples of overfishing where the desire for money prevails over common sense.
Some countries are legendary for their consumption of all kinds of food, especially Chinese brag that they eat anything that has four legs, except for the table... Both meat and guts are eaten, a variety of delicacies are produced. Many nations divide animals into clean and unclean, “clean” ones being usually herbivores, while “unclean” species are almost always carnivorous species, scavengers or species coming into contact with faeces.
It would seem that bushmeat only affects Africa, but that is not true. Meat from killed animals is also smuggled into Europe and the US. These are cultural habits of immigrants from African countries, but some of the luxury restaurants serve bushmeat food at high prices. If we imagine the whole transport – from the fireplace somewhere in the African bush where the caught animal is shortly roasted and smoked, then the meat is transported in the heat somewhere, smuggled for long hours in a trunk or a crate... it is often a rather disgusting shipment. It is surprising that Ebola or other illnesses have not yet been brought to Europe this way. Problematic are mainly airports with direct flights to Africa. In 2011, the control Operation Bushmeat took place at the Paris airport, where customs officers seized 518 kg of smuggled wild animal meat within one month. It is estimated that up to 270 tonnes of bushmeat pass through Paris every year. This is a huge risk of infection, but this aspect of illegal wildlife trade is unfortunately only little known.
The increase in demand for glass eels in Asia has caused a huge rise in prices. The current price of glass eels is 1,500-2,000 EUR/kg (the record price was even 12,000 EUR/kg), there are about 3,000 eel larvae in 1 kg of glass eels. In China and Japan, the Japanese eel (Anguilla japonica) is preferred, but it has already been caught out, so China’s interest has focused on the European eel (Anguilla anguilla). China is now the main importer of European eels and this demand increases the price of glass eels. Eel aquaculture is a lucrative business. Glass eels are expensive, but if the eels are fed (to about 0.5 kg, which takes around 6 months) and sold to restaurants, a net profit of 1 kg of glass eels can be up to 7,500 EUR. Therefore, there are still more and more aquacultures in China that require new glass eels from Europe. Unfortunately, the population of the European eel is not large enough to saturate the demand of Chinese farms...
Many people look at Chinese with contempt because of their gourmet habits, but the situation is not ideal even in Europe. In the Mediterranean, small songbirds are popular food – they are eaten in many ways in Italy, Spain, France, Greece, Croatia, Albania, Tunisia... Cypriot national food “ambelopoulia” are bodies of songbirds loaded in olive oil and herbs... Birds are hunted all over Europe, being caught to nets or on special glues. During migration, more than a million birds are hunted in the Mediterranean. In Egypt, tens of thousands of birds are killed for food, but they also being shot only because bird shooting is a favourite pastime for Egyptian golden youth. Everything is hunted – chaffinches, robins, warblers, buntings, quails... Only sparrows are not eaten because they feed on ladybirds and their meat is therefore inedible.
Frogs are eaten in many countries, but the EU is the largest frog consumer. About 4,600 tonnes of frogs per year are imported into Europe, accounting for 93-230 million frogs! Most of them go to Belgium (2,469 tonnes) and France (1,045 tonnes), with the Czech Republic importing only a small amount of 1,5 tonne. All imported frogs come from the wild, usually from Java and Sumatra – 84% of all imports come from Indonesia.
Large species of Ranidae frogs (Limnonectes macrodon, Fejervarya cancrivora, Fejervarya limnonectes), which have more meat, are collected. But frogs play an indispensable environmental role in the wild – adults feed on insects and tadpoles filter water. If frogs are missing in the ecosystem, water goes bad and insect populations grow.
Traffickers smuggled suitcases with caviar from Russia through Poland to Europe and America. However, the smuggled caviar has a poor quality – it is usually left to freeze before the transport to endure in the airplane luggage compartment, the outer layer of eggs then cracks, and caviar becomes a mush. Caviar from poached sturgeons used to be sold at airport terminals, over the Internet, in supermarkets. Artificial hatcheries disappeared because there was no money, and the system of releasing fish and restoring their populations collapsed. The reaction came soon – the sturgeon population numbers dropped sharply.
The chaos around the Caspian Sea led to considerations of whether to ban the caviar trade. Russia did not like it very much. Protecting sturgeons would mean losing profits for the powerful mafia and everybody concerned, but also a threat to local residents who would lose their livelihood. Some restrictions were set hesitantly, sturgeons were included in CITES II, but illegal hunting and caviar exports continued. The largest caviar consumers were the US and the Western European countries. In the 1990s, US authorities commonly detected 3-4 caviar smugglers on each Aeroflot flight to New York. Among the smugglers were also flight attendants, business travellers, or even policemen. Permits were being falsified and the caviar was being laundered through countries where the traffickers found “friendly” CITES officials (who were bribed, for example, by the supply of Russian prostitutes). The smuggled caviar was being sourced also by such subjects as the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. The best-known case was the Caviar Caviar company, which imported 14.5 tonnes of illegal caviar for 24 million USD to the United States in 1998, which was more than the whole official quota for Russia (the company was fined 10.4 million USD).
After 2000, caviar trade gradually declined, and many companies disappeared. The volume of catches is still falling down and there is less and less caviar. Catches of the smuggled caviar have been decreasing as well, because there is nothing much to smuggle anymore... The sturgeons are simply on the brink of extinction.
The only Caspian state that apparently did not let its sturgeons be wiped out is Iran. It keeps records of caught fish, has artificial hatcheries, and releases young fish into the wild. Fortunately, sturgeons are bound to the rivers they hatched in, so those who are released in Iran do not swim to Russia, where they would be hunted. The sturgeon population in Iran is therefore reported to be stable, but this fairy tale has a little “but”– no one knows if it is true. No CITES mission has been allowed in Iran, it is a closed Muslim country, and the effort to verify the declared data is of absolutely no chance.
The Iranians produce also the so-called almas caviar in their hatcheries, a mythical light caviar from several nearly 100-year-old albino belugas, which the Iranians take care of in a secret place and gently obtain their eggs manually. This caviar is packed into cans made of gold where one pound can cost 14,000 GBP. Almas caviar is supplied to royal and noble courts, waiting period for this delicacy is 2-3 years.
It would seem that the only hope would be farms for sturgeon breeding and caviar production. But it’s not that easy. The problem is in the longevity of sturgeons – the investor has to wait for a very long time for the return on his investment, as the farm does not produce anything for at least 8-10 years and just wait for sturgeons to grow and produce caviar. All that time an aquaculture must be kept in operation and the fish must be fed, which means high costs. Thus, maturing of fish is accelerated by hormone-enriched diet or species crossing, and farms are therefore not considered to be of high quality.
Apart from sturgeons, caviar can be produced from virtually all fish species (except for poisonous ones such as fugu). The most famous alternative is the orange Salmon caviar, but the salmon population in Russia is unfortunately decimated as well because of the demand for this type of caviar. Yellowish Trout caviar is produced from trouts, and the Lumpfish caviar is obtained from lumpfish (Cyclopterus lumpus). Capelins (Mallotus vilosus) are hunted in Greenland to be used for Capelin caviar which is also popular in Japan for sushi (Masago). One of North America’s most commercially important fish is the lake whitefish (Coregonus clupeaformis) (Whitefish caviar) and the cisco (Cisco caviar). The caviar is also made from pikes and carps (Pike caviar, Carp caviar). In Greece, the well-known Taramosalata salad contains carp caviar (Tarama) as the main ingredient. In Scandinavia, caviar is made from salmons and cods.
In France and China, crab “caviar” is a favourite delicacy – it is tiny black eggs eaten directly from the crab shell. A very expensive type of caviar is Sea urchin caviar, which is tiny orange eggs of sea urchins. It is difficult to obtain (hand-made processing of urchins only in a certain period of the year), but its popularity is growing as it contains anandamide (a type of cannabinoid), which has very strong aphrodisiac effects.
French people consume the crystal Snail caviar from transparent snail eggs. Snails are farmed for this purpose, mainly in Poland and France. And complete substitutes of caviar made of gelatine and flavoured with fish smell are produced as well...
Sometimes it is not easy to understand what people are able to eat. The Greenland specialty called kiviak is a natural can from a seal body filled with auks. A hunted seal is eviscerated, and its abdominal cavity is stuffed with slaughtered auks, puffins or gannets (formerly, already wiped out great auks were used). It is necessary to adhere to the principle of single-species composition of stuffing – 400-600 birds with added fat can fit into a seal. The seal is then tightly sewn and put to a cold place (or buried underground) for 3-18 months. For that time, the contents are fermenting. The festive “opening” of the kiviak is always done on fresh air (no wonder why). Kiviak then serves Inuit people as a source of vitamins, but poorly made kiviak leads to poisoning with botulinum toxin. It is perhaps not surprising that only few foreigners dare to eat kiviak.
A similar specialty is the Swedish fermented herring surströmming, which is sold in more than 700,000 cans per year. Raw fish caught in the spring in the Gulf of Bothnia are loaded into a barrel with salt solution to prevent decomposition. In the barrel, fish ferment for about a month, then they are poured into cans where the fermentation continues. Cans sometimes explode, local airlines are thus forbidding passengers to carry surströmming in their luggage (if a can explodes onboard, the passenger must pay a fine of up to one million Czech crowns). Opening of surströmming cans is considered an art by the Swedes.
In Iceland, a specialty called hákarl is consumed – fermented shark buried underground. It is the Greenland shark (Somniosus microcephalus) living in the cold waters of the North. The meat of this shark is toxic – due to the life in low temperatures it is saturated with urea and trimethylamine oxide (a substance causing mouth odour). In a small amount, these substances cause an intoxication-like poisoning, but they kill if consumed in a bigger amount. A captured shark is portioned, and pieces of meat are piled into a pit with gravel. Everything is loaded with stones and decomposing processes are allowed to work for 6-12 weeks. Hákarl is then dried for 4-5 months in the air. Pungent pieces of meat are served chilled with a toothpick and a glass of brandy.
In the Pacific, flying foxes, especially the Marianna flying fox (Pteropus mariannus), are a popular food. They eat grilled, roasted, fried or stewed with vegetables, or cooked in a soup as a more solemn dish. In order to fully use the potential of the dish, it is necessary to cook a flying fox in the pot alive. Fortunately, the death from heat shock comes shortly after the lid is dropped. As a result of moving them to the menu, on a number of islands flying foxes have quickly approached the extinction. However, eating meat of flying foxes poses a health risk – Marianna flying foxes like to feed on large agricultural farms where plants are often treated with the DDT insecticide. Flying foxes are also carriers of various bacteria and viruses that cause SARS, Ebola or the so-called Parkinsonism-dementia Complex, a neurodegenerative disease leading to dementia (in the indigenous Chamorro language, this disease is known as “lytico-bodig”, literally “stupid and lazy”). Unfortunately, the substances causing GPC will not disappear from a flying fox during cooking.
The health risk is posed also by consumption of marmosets that are prepared in Mongolia by putting hot stones into the abdominal cavity of eviscerated marmosets. But marmosets carry fleas and the Mongolian flea population is strongly infected with plaque...
Primates are hunted for meat, as mentioned in the Bushmeat chapter. But monkeys are also hunted for their brains that are consumed as a specialty, mainly in Asia. The historically first documented record of eating of monkey brains comes from China. Man Han Quan Xi is an inventory of 108 courses at a Great Imperial feast of the Chinese Empire in the 17th century where the menu consisted of stuffed camel humps, boiled unborn snow leopard cub, and macaque brains eaten right from the monkeys’ heads that were served as an appetizer. Monkey brains were not long ago served in some luxury Chinese restaurants. Today, monkey banquets are forbidden, but they seem to take place illegally (small monkeys are smuggled from Vietnam onto Chinese meat markets, and apparently not just as pets). What top manager of a major corporation would not want to taste the dish of the ancient emperors? This strange culinary practice is not limited to China, monkey brains are consumed in Laos, Vietnam, India, Nepal and Indonesia. In Africa, the consumption of gorillas has been documented in Nigeria and Cameroon. However, it is not an interesting taste experience – taste of monkey brain is dim and is compared to a watery tofu. They are consumed with brandy, which is intended to eliminate possible diseases.
Do not imagine the trend of “slow food”. The term “long food” means consumption of penises. Since ancient times, various cultures have been believing that consumption of penises is something special. It’s not just Asia – testicles and penises are consumed by Maasai people in Africa, gauchos from South American pampas, Scottish shepherds, American cowboys, Scandinavian Sami, etc. Nevertheless, Southeast Asia is probably on the top. The most prominent is the yak penis (Guo Li Zhuàng Diàn = power hidden in a pot), which is probably due to its size (50 cm) and the fact that yaks in rut have permanent erection. This food is often called very dramatically, such as the Phoenix Rebellion, the Golden Buddha Essence, or the Thousand Jasmine Rose Petals... This is not a cheap thing – a yak penis costs around 5-6,000 CZK in China. The donkey penis (40 cm) is cheaper, but Chinese people also consume penises of kangaroos, seals or dolphins. A major demand is for tiger penises, but they are tiny, so most of what Chinese marketplaces offer as a tiger penis is actually a penis of a deer. Interestingly, consumption of penises is particularly popular with middle-aged men, especially businessmen and officials...