Brown bear kebabs, bear meat goulash and bear chops - all these were on the menu at an Italian banquet broken up by police earlier this month. Organised by President Berlusconi's northern separatist coalition partner, the Northern League, the banquet cooked bear meat imported from neighbouring Slovenia to protest against the reintroduction of bears to Italy's Alpine Dolomite region. Some locals blame heavy livestock losses and a new danger on forest paths, due to the region's 35-strong bear population - even though bears generally shun human contact - but many Italians are furious.
The country's foreign minister, Franco Frattini, commented that the banquet was distasteful at a time when Italy's bears are "almost extinct and we are trying with great effort to bring them back to the mountains that have hosted them for centuries". Unfortunately, Europe's brown bears are not the only threatened animals being dished up worldwide. The trade and international traffic in endangered species is not just for pets, which has been an issue of late in the UAE. Around the world animals considered desirable or delicacies are regularly poached so their parts can be eaten or used to make medicine. In the process, they are pushed closer to extinction. Here are some of the most vulnerable.
The unusual skin of this strange but beautiful breed of anteaters - the only group of mammals known to possess scales - has proved an unlikely curse recently. Long eaten in tropical Africa and Asia, pangolins are being killed across south-east Asia in larger numbers than ever for import to China, where many believe the scales have medicinal properties. The size of the illicit trade is staggering. According to Richard Thomas of Traffic, a global wildlife trade monitor, one illegal syndicate in Malaysia alone sold more than 22,000 animals from May 2007 to January 2009. Some Chinese customers - who also eat the meat and blood - prefer pangolins shipped live, but the animals' low stress tolerance means many die from stomach ulcers en route. Such is the pressure on wild populations that many species in the pangolin family are now endangered or threatened.
It's not tigers' beautiful pelts alone that make them vulnerable, explains Thomas. "Some people in east Asia believe eating tiger meat imparts strength," he says. "A recent development is using the cat's bones to make tiger-bone wine" - a tonic made by steeping tiger carcasses in rice wine. While a number of tiger farms have been exposed in the press, many of the tigers used in this way come from the wild. According to Thomas, numbers are worryingly high.
"Within the tiger range states, parts belonging to up to 1,220 different tigers have been seized in the last decade. This sort of trade pushes species decline, with rare animals like the Sumatran tiger now down to a few hundred animals."
While many rare species feed into the African trade in "bushmeat" or wild game - crocodiles, elephants and porcupines among them - few are as vulnerable as great apes. Gorilla, bonobo and chimpanzee carcasses form only one per cent of the total African trade in bushmeat, but their low reproduction rates make them especially threatened. It seems hard to criticise the hungry populations who eat these species for survival, especially as the African bushmeat trade is partly fuelled by catches in Africa's fishing waters being diverted away from local markets to the West. But as the conservation coalition Apes Alliance puts it: "Anyone who eats ape meat today must recognise that he or she will stop eating apes in a decade or three. They can choose … to stop eating now … or they can stop when Africa's apes become extinct."
This January, a bluefin tuna made the highest price for any fish - US$396,700 (Dh1.457m) for all 342 kilos of it. While those who ate this fish no doubt enjoyed it, they risk sounding the fish's death knell. Since 1970, 90 per cent of Mediterranean bluefin stocks have disappeared, leaving the northern bluefin critically endangered. "Diners and chefs need to think about tomorrow," insists Gemma Parkes, the communications officer for World Wildlife Fund Mediterranean. "If we use too much bluefin now, there simply won't be any left - and as a top predator, its disappearance would have a huge effect on marine ecosystems." So far, "farmed" bluefin (in fact young, wild bluefin fattened quickly in cages) isn't the answer either, with poorer-quality flesh not reducing demand for the real thing. So what should conscientious bluefin lovers do? "Avoid it!" says Parkes. "And eat more sardines instead."
"At the current rate of decline, we will lose many of Asia's tortoises and freshwater turtle species forever if international and national laws and conventions are not enforced," warns Chris Shepherd of Traffic. Turtles and their eggs have long been delicacies in many regions - including Europe - and global demand is only continuing a history of extinction. Increasingly, overexploitation is putting many species at risk, both from diners and the pet trade. While habitat loss is also a factor, it's not surprising that poaching is a problem when rare animals such as east Asia's golden coin turtle can fetch up to US$20,000 apiece on the Chinese market.