IN bazaars in Guidong County in central China's Hunan Province, villagers use a unique way to set the price of the myriad wild birds on sale: measuring the length of their necks.
Birds with long necks, such as egrets and herons, sell for between 10 yuan (US$1.6) and 70 yuan, while short-necked eagles and owls are priced at hundreds of yuan as the taste of their meat is preferred.
Guidong is at the epicenter of a battle to crack down on the hunting of migratory birds, with the province last week forming a volunteer team on migratory bird protection.
It is badly needed, as ornithologists warn of an additional threat on top of traditional hunting and consumption of wild birds in provincial backwaters. Rising demand in Chinese urban markets, they say, has lured an increasing number of bird purchasers and professional hunters into the area.
"Local residents are unaware of the animals' endangered status, not knowing that many of the cheaply priced bird of prey are actually under state protection," said Li Feng, one of Hunan's volunteers.
Guidong lies along one of eight routes for the world's billions of migratory birds. Every autumn, clouds of birds fly over local mountains as they travel thousands of miles to dock in India and southeast Asia. But unlike the other two routes passing through the western and eastern parts of China, the middle route, through the provinces of Hunan and Jiangxi, features a great density of flocks and has been plagued by rampant poaching activities.
In Hunan's counties of Guidong, Xinhua and Xinshao, a village can net more than 150 tons of wild birds a year, with hunting seen as a tradition by villagers believing in the birds' special health benefits.
"The hunters track and kill birds all the way as they depart from Mongolia and fly south," said Yang Jinhai of the Xinhua County forestry bureau.
The carcasses are then sold locally or to other Chinese cities, including those in the southern province of Guangdong, where restaurant goers pay generously for meat they see as rare delicacies.
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