Byline: ADAM LUCK
Hell that is the A NEW day is dawning in Ho Sun village, on the outskirts of the sprawling industrial city of Foshan. I am standing on top of 50 wire mesh cages packed with thousands of geese being fattened for China's markets and restaurants.
As they are grabbed by the throat and thrown to the ground to be slaughtered, there is an overwhelming stench of excrement and fetid, stagnant water.
An early-morning heat haze is framed by swarms of flies as I look across the pens at equally packed pig, poultry and sewage-blighted fish farms stretching far into the distance in all directions, interspersed by shoddy, concrete, low-rise housing developments. I am hemmed in on all sides by a teeming, stinking, unsanitary collision between three conflicting worlds.
High-intensity factory farming copied from the West sits cheek by jowl with labour-intensive modern industry and the primitive centuries-old rural lifestyle of Old China.
Here, amid the factories and livestock pens, live simple peasant farmers, surrounded by their animals, in hundreds of crudely built wooden shacks reached by muddy dirt-track roads. This is the hell that is the cradle of the killer virus responsible for Sars - severe acute respiratory syndrome - which has already killed 400 people and infected 5,000 more in its relentless sweep around the world.
I am the first Western journalist to investigate Foshan, the epicentre of Sars. This gleaming, modern city of 3.5 million people in southern China's Guangdong province saw the disease's first recorded case and its first recorded death at the beginning of the year.
It is also a place gripped by fear, not only of the disease itself, but of the repressive Communist machinery of the Chinese state, which is attempting to curb the spread of the disease by throwing anyone with Sars out of work and threatens to imprison its citizens for daring even to mention 'ai Dian', the Chinese name for Sars.
Scientists now believe the disease is caused by a new mutation of the coronavirus and related to the organism that causes the common cold. Such viruses are known to be able to jump from one species to another and often prove lethal to a new host that has not built up defensive immunity.
One theory is that the virus spread from animals to humans in the socalled 'wet markets' of Guangdong province, where live rats, turtles, snakes and other exotic animals are sold for the table.
Another is that the province's intensive agriculture, where birds are kept in close proximity to pigs, is the likely source of infection.
Getting to the truth is no easy task.
The identity of the first recorded victim remains a closely guarded secret, but he is believed to be a snake and bird trader who died at the Shunde First People's Hospital near Foshan four months ago.
At the Shunde market, snake seller Cheung Sui-kan told me: 'The snake dealers of this area often travel around the province selling wild animals for food. They are considered a delicacy.' Guangdong's appetite for eating wild animals is legendary and restaurants scramble to buy exotic table fare such as cobras, leopard cats, civets, monkeys, bats and guinea pigs.
'But now,' the trader said, 'there is a new rule brought in by the Government that we cannot sell wild snakes because of Sars.' As a preventative measure, the ban is clearly too little, too late.
Fifteen miles north of Foshan, in the provincial capital of Guangzhou, tens of thousands of living and dying animals, trapped in pools of their own waste, are crammed up against each other in the Lo Chung Way market.
Alongside the wild animals are traditional domestic poultry and pigs that have lived alongside man for centuries.
It is the perfect breeding ground for deadly viruses. So, too, is the region's intensive agriculture.
Microbiologists believe that at least three global pandemics have sprung out of the mire of Guangdong province in the last century alone, including the Asian flu of 1957, the Hong Kong variant of 1968 and, in all probability, the 1918 'Spanish' flu epidemic - which have together killed 70 million people. …