Endangered Species in Today’s Traditional Medicine Trade

In this day and age modern medicine, especially in the west, is very much rooted in the application of scientific principles. Whilst homeopathy and alternative medicines are rising in popularity these are generally seen as ‘harmless’ in their resourcing, focusing on crystals, herbs and the like. However, there are still plenty of areas in the world where the use of animal parts in traditional medicine is rife.

China especially is one such country which is constantly coming under the spotlight for its traditional medicinal practices involving rare animals and it is a practice which is once again gaining momentum. In 2015 chemist Tu Youyou and her wormwood based malaria treatment won the Nobel Peace Prize. In August 2016 China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology revealed that in the first half of the year revenue from traditional Chinese medicinal practices accounted for 22.4% in the national pharmaceutical industry, although this most likely includes non-harmful practices. However, conservationists say that this resurgence has led to many unregulated practices, especially wildlife trafficking.

In response to criticism, China reviewed and republished its Wildlife Law for the first time in 30 years. However, it came under criticism as it was revealed to have several large loopholes which would essentially allow practices such as animal farming to continue. Tigers for example can be bred and slaughtered for their bones and skin to make ornaments and tiger bone wine and it is estimated that some 5,000 to 6,000 tigers are currently being bred in captivity for this use.

Manta rays are another creature which has suffered due to Chinese medical practices. Their gill raker plates became a popular sale for seafood salesmen who touted that they could cure practically any ailment. It is worth noting though that this is less to do with traditional Chinese practices and more to do with local seafood salesmen cashing in on the resurgence of such practices. However, manta rays generally only produce 1 – 2 pups when they breed, meaning that the high demand for them has had an extremely detrimental affect on their population numbers.

Up until the 1990’s the rhino horn was actually classed as being legal to use in medicinal practices in China until the decreasing rhino population forced China to omit them from the government produced list which denotes which animals can be used in traditional medicine. Believed to relieve fevers and lower blood pressure, it however soon become more heavily in demand several years ago when talk of it curing terminal liver cancer of a status figure in Vietnam surfaced. As such the rhino horn became even more sought after and levels of illegal poaching and trafficking rose again, especially in South Africa.

The horns of the water buffalo are seen as an alternative to the rhino horn and these animals are hunted especially in Asia. Another endangered creature, the wild water buffaloes have already been wiped out in several Asian countries such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in large part thanks to the belief that the water buffalo horn shares the same medicinal properties in relieving fevers and lowering blood pressure.

However, it was in fact the pangolin that was the most trafficked animal in 2015/2016 with roughly 1 million pangolins from across Africa and Asia being taken from the wild and sold almost exclusively to the Chinese who believe their scales can cure a myriad of diseases and ailments. Whilst international bodies have tried their best to put measures in place to combat the rise in these illegal practices these are often supported by domestic legislation, and as such these practices often go unchecked.

By S megan at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By S megan at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

There are many other endangered animals which are popular within traditional medicinal practices. One animal renowned for being hunted for its medicinal properties is the elephant. Whilst African elephants are hunted for the medicinal properties their tusks hold, the Asian elephant is most often hunted for its meat and other body parts. For example, in Myanmar it is believed that using parts of the elephant foot made into a paste can help treat hernias. Parts of Myanmar are reported as being rife for illegal activity, especially in regards to medicinal practices involving animals which is worrying for those in China seeking to end animal exploitation, due to its close proximity to China.

The Chinese alligator is a creature who was once considered endangered with it believed that there were only 200 left in the wild in a small reserve in China. However, thanks to captive breeding programs their numbers on the rise with efforts being made to introduce them back into the wild. Whilst there are many factors in the decline of the Chinese alligator such as extensive dam building, hunting has also played its part.

The Musk deer, native to Asia is another creature used in traditional medicine, and all seven species of this particular animal are on the decline. The meat of the Musk deer is believed to treat cardiac, circulatory and respiratory problems and has been used for over 5,000 years in Chinese medicine. However, unlike many animals on this list the Musk deer has a rather unusual feature compared to other animals in the medicine trade; as the name may suggest, the musk pods of the male Musk deer are harvested and sold and can be used in making perfumes. Whilst synthetic alternatives have been produced to replace the need for the musk pods, these creatures are still hunted for such and sold mostly to foreign traders. In actual fact it is just the gland of the animal which is needed but hunters find it easier to just kill the animal outright which has caused massive depopulation of these animals in Russia and Mongolia.

The Sun Bear is hunted for its gallbladder and is used to treat a myriad of different illnesses. A rapidly declining species, whilst it is illegal to hunt these animals in Southeast Asia these laws are rarely enforced. The bile from the gallbladder is also extracted as it is believed this can cure gall stones, sore throats and also hemorrhoids. Like the Tiger, loopholes in Chinese law mean it is also permissible to farm Sun Bears for their bile and as such the conditions they can be forced to endure can be horrific.

These are just a small selection of animals used in traditional medicinal practices, albeit some of the most endangered. As the practice gains renewed popularity and with local authorities either turning a blind eye or making it possible for these practices to be conducted legally it is difficult to see the situation for not just endangered animals, but all animals, improving any time soon.

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Jessica Howard

Jessica Howard

29 years old, currently living and working in London, UK.

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