Endangered and in demand
By DUNCAN GRAHAM-ROWE - NATURE
Added: Wed, 28 Dec 2011 08:08:23 UTC
With an ingredients list that includes rhino horn and tiger bone, traditional Asian medicine is on a collision course with wildlife preservation.
It looks innocuous enough: a small vial bearing a white and orange label with the words 'Shi-He Ming Yan Wan'. Yet the pills contained within are said to hold great healing powers, able to cure just about anything, from a mild fever to a brain haemorrhage; from cancer to AIDS. The pill's power, it is claimed, comes from a small amount of rhinoceros horn. Little wonder then that people pay as much as US$50,000 for a kilogram of the stuff, roughly the same as the price of gold (see 'The rhino toll').
The rhino and its horn are not alone: powdered tiger bone is used to treat rheumatism; the scales of the toothless, anteater-like pangolin are believed to reduce swelling and improve blood circulation; and guilinggao, a jelly derived from the shells of freshwater turtles, was used to treat smallpox in a nineteenth-century emperor, with little success — in Taiwan it is now reputed to cure cancer. It is a similar story for many other endangered species whose commercial use is restricted — or banned outright — by the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
The illicit trade in wildlife is a booming industry, estimated by the US congressional research service to be worth as much as US$20 billion globally each year1. Although this figure includes trade in bushmeat, skins and exotic pets, in the expanding Asian market, estimated to be the largest in the world, a significant driver is traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Indeed, despite showing signs of decline in the 1990s, the poaching and trade of endangered animals such as tigers and rhinos is once again on the rise. Yet cheaper and more potent alternatives are available. Organizations such as the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine say that sustainable substitutes have been used successfully for nearly two decades. So why is there still a burgeoning market to use these precious animals in traditional Asian medicine?
Rich person's remedy
One likely factor driving this demand is the rise in the wealth of China, says Sabri Zain, director of advocacy for Traffic International in Cambridge, UK, which was established in 1973 to monitor wildlife trade. “Currently China is the biggest market,” he says. This dominance is not just a consequence of China's population, or the fact that traditional Asian medicine has its roots there, but to the country's rapidly rising incomes. “There are more people who can afford it,” Zain says.
The market for these substances also seems to be expanding. A range of new products has emerged over the past decade, available as black market products or through online stores. “Tiger bone is now being used in wine,” says Debbie Banks, a senior tiger investigator with the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a campaign group in London. It is a similar story with other new products made with tiger bones, such as shampoo — or indeed with tiger penis soup, which has no perceived medicinal value whatsoever, she says. In fact, these wines, shampoos and soups are not part of the traditional medicine repertoire at all. However, they do lean on the same beliefs, says Banks. “They are seen as status products,” she adds.
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