The government on Tuesday warned against eating nutrias, or river rats, which were once raised for their fur.
The popularity of nutrias as food has soared since January after a local cable news channel claimed nutria gall bladders are equally as nutritious as bear gall bladders.
But the Ministry of Environment said nutrias are host to bacteria and pesticides, some of which can affect humans.
“The gall bladder and liver can be infected with zoonotic bacteria and parasites,” said Noh Hee-kyong from the ministry.
The January report by TV-Chosun triggered competitive nutria-hunting among some people, according to news reports.
Many Koreans eat bear gall bladders and even travel overseas for them. Bile from bear gall bladders is used in Oriental medicine to treat a wide range of ailments, although scientists have found no evidence of their medicinal effects.
The ministry estimates approximately 5,400 nutrias are in the area of the Nakdong River in the southern part of the country _ they are originally from South America and like warm climates.
Catching them is not illegal. The government has encouraged people to do so for years as nutrias are an invasive species threatening the ecosystem.
With no predators, the population of nutrias grew rapidly to the point where they began destroying the food chain. The ministry pays a bounty of 20,000 won per nutria killed or captured. Those who raise them for commerce can be punished with up to two years in prison or fined up to 20 million won.
Tuesday’s warning came amid reports that nutria hunting has become more widespread.
Nutrias were first imported to Korea in the 1980s from Bulgaria. The government encouraged farmers to raise them and sell their fur, and many farmers in the south lived off of them. With their popularity decreasing, raising nutria gradually slowed down and breeders began releasing them into the wild.
Since 2009, the government labeled nutrias as an invasive species and ran massive campaigns to catch them. A branch of the environment ministry has a special team of hunters dedicated to killing nutrias. Between 2014 and 2016 alone, the number of nutrias killed was 19,256.
The situation outside Korea is similar. The International Union for Conservation of Nature listed nutrias as an invasive species and countries are trying to find ways to get rid of them.
“We’ll also continue to eradicate them and complete this by 2023,” the official said.