On the streets of Beijing, little old ladies coax even littler dogs to do their business. Some even bear the little plastic bags carried by civically conscious urbanite pet-lovers everywhere. Yet in cities across China one can also still find dog on the menu, as I can personally attest. This divide between a growing middle class of pet-lovers and people who have experienced famine in their lifetimes reveals what may prove a big shift in the relationship between Chinese people and animals.

China's utilitarian tradition when it comes to animals has roots at least as far back as Confucius. The great sage himself mostly ignored animals in favor of establishing the correct relationships between people, though his main follower Mencius urged compassion towards beasts. In Shandong Province where Confucius was born, the natural world is most noticeable by its absence. The call of a magpie or its stick nest in the bare branches of a tree marks the only sign of wild life one is likely to find in the populous province that has been continuously inhabited for at least 6,000 years. There's a reason no elephants live anywhere in China anymore.

Just as European, American and Japanese cultural peculiarities reshape the natural world—think of cattle ranches converting the Amazon to pasture or the rapid decline of bluefin tuna—so too does the demand from the world's most populous country affect the world beyond its borders. Shark numbers have plummeted the world over because fins serve as a thickener in soup. Poachers slaughter rhinos and elephants because of demand for a quack aphrodisiac and ornamental goods, respectively. The little known saiga antelope is now critically endangered because it was once suggested as an alternative to rhino horn by conservationists. Even the mighty tiger is imperiled across its dwindling range, thanks to ongoing demand for its bones as a cure for all that ails you from a few of the newly affluent in China. (In a country of 1.35 billion, even a small minority can create a huge impact—0.01 percent of the population means a potential clientele for tiger bone wine of 135,000, more than enough to lead to the death of the few thousand tigers remaining in the wild.)

It's not just abroad. The shuffling, armored pangolin, which has the misfortune to be edible, has disappeared from within the borders of China and may soon disappear from all of Asia. And after millennia of modest exploitation, overfishing, pollution and mega-dams have destroyed the country's great river, the Chang Jiang (better known globally as the Yangtze River). That includes the first large mammal extinction since the 1950s—the bai ji, a fresh water river dolphin last seen in 2002.

This may be finally about to change. Taking care of animals remains a foreign idea, particularly since so many people still suffer in China, but it is not as foreign as it once was. A campaign to save the snow leopard in western China features pictures posted in subway stations across the capital city. The rhino, elephant and other animals like snakes are depicted as "wild and precious" on posters urging conservation in international airports. A swimming elephant notes "we are being killed to make dangerous criminals rich," while another poster notes that rhino horn is illegal: "Be informed. Make smart choices."

Dogs have become so ubiquitous that many car owners place plates over their wheels when they park their cars to protect the tires and rims from the corrosive effects of canine urine. The same affluence that enables demand for "medicine" made from tiger bone also increases people's ability to care for dogs, cats and birds, and thus fall in love with animals.

The love of pets in China has arguably reached new heights, with owners dyeing the hair of beloved dogs to resemble equally beloved pandas, among other animals. If this love continues to grow as more people attain a more affluent lifestyle, the Chinese may soon find themselves devoted to animal protection. The panda provides the leading example, benefiting from government largesse and popular support. Something similar happened in the U.S. over the course of the 20th century, where people went from extirpating cranes to donning bird suits and piloting ultra-light planes to restore whooping cranes to the wild.

In fact, China also has a long-history of environmental protection, albeit mainly for the wealthy (like everywhere else). If the same ideas that led the emperor Tongzhi to save the Pere David deer, or milu, in his hunting preserve outside Beijing can now be extended to the tiger in India or Russia, charismatic megafauna will face one less challenge to their continued existence. The alternative is as grim as dogs for food.