How “Traditional Chinese Medicine” Is Pushing Species to Extinction

Science shows that most of today’s “traditional Chinese medicine” is simple quackery. But another consequence of the global “traditional medicine” industry that has not been as widely discussed is the enormous destructive effect it has had on some of the most endangered species on the planet.

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White Rhino, in South Africa’s Kruger National Park

For thousands of years, tribal humans used plants taken from nature as treatments and cures for diseases–because they had nothing else. By simple trial and error, some plants containing chemicals were indeed matched to diseases for which they were effective. The shamans and healers of course had no idea why or how these plants worked, so they attributed it to such things as “mystical energy” or “a gift of the gods”.

Coming from pre-scientific religious and philosophical systems, however, most of these “traditional medicines” are based on nothing more than magic. Chinese “medicine” is based on the presumed flow through the body of the mystical energy “chi” which must be “balanced” through “yin” and “yang”–and illness is presumed to be the result of an “energy imbalance”. Many traditional “cures” are based on “sympathetic magic”–the naive belief that a plant or animal’s appearance or behavior tells of its medicinal properties. Tigers and bears for instance, were seen as powerful and virile animals, so it was presumed that eating tiger or bear parts would increase “male potency”. (Recently, we have seen an example of this same magical thinking as it actually came into existence, when someone publicized the mistaken notion that sharks do not get cancer and the “alternative medicine” industry in turn suddenly began flooding us with dozens of “cures” and “preventatives” based on eating shark cartilage).

In Europe, the traditional view was that diseases were caused by an “imbalance” in the “four humours”, and most “medicine” was aimed at reducing or increasing one of the “humours” to “restore the balance”. After modern medical science demonstrated that the “four humours” framework was simply nonsense, the “traditional medicine” began to die out. As Europe and its colonies became wealthier and wealthier, doctors and hospitals replaced herbalists and shamans.

And, as nations like China and India undergo their own economic transformations, the same thing is happening today, as pre-scientific “cures” are being replaced by modern medicine which, unlike traditional religious magic, actually works, and which more and more people are now able to afford. But that societal transition is not an instant one. It takes a long period of time, during which a number of people still accept the traditional “cures”, but now have the purchasing power to buy these things from anywhere on the planet. And, with their immense populations and steadily-increasing middle-class, the amount they can buy is enormous, and goes up every year. The effect has been devastating.

Animals

There are over 1500 different species of animal that are used in Indian and Chinese “traditional medicine”. They range from turtles (which are supposed to promote longevity and also to increase the “yin” energy of the body and diminish the “yang”) to monkey blood (which is supposed to cure all sorts of things, from achy joints to heart disease). The oddest (and sadly one of the most common) areas to be “cured” is male impotency. Among the “traditional medicine cures” proposed for this have been rhino horn, tiger penis, snake gall bladder, pangolin fetuses, sea horses, gecko lizards, cinnamon bark, and a few dozen others.

Since few of these animals can now be collected locally in India or China (partly because they have already been exterminated there by people using them for “traditional medicine”), they now have to be purchased overseas and imported. And as more and more of these rural poor are lifted out of poverty and raised to the middle class, they can afford to buy and import more and more of them. The legal trade of “medicinal” plants and animals imported into China alone is over $2 billion per year–and the illegal trade in smuggled plants and animals is much higher than that. But it is Mother Nature who pays the real price.

Rhinos

For half a century, rhinos have been the poster animals for endangered species. “Traditional medicine” has long held that powdered rhino horn is not only a cure for all sorts of various diseases and ailments, from fever to vomiting to headache to joint pain, but is also a powerful aphrodisiac that will cure male impotence. This is, of course, simply nonsense–rhino horn is made from compressed hair composed of the protein keratin, which is no different from your own hair or your fingernails. The association of “rhinos” with “male potency” comes solely because male rhinos have what are, to human eyes, absurdly big wee-wee’s. (There’s that “sympathetic magic” again.)

By the 1970s, all of the world’s rhino species were on the verge of extinction, with poaching one of the primary causes. Some of this demand was centered in the oil-rich Middle East, where rhino horn was traditionally used for the handles of ceremonial daggers carried by desert tribesmen. But most poached rhino horn went to Asia for “medicine”. Nations in eastern and southern Africa made tremendous efforts to combat poachers and protect their remaining rhino herds, with some measure of success. In some areas, the rhino populations began to slowly recover. But in the 1990’s, rising wealth in China and India began the process all over again. Poaching once more increased steadily, fueled by the growing demand for “medicinals” in Asia. Since the Asian species of rhino are now so critically rare that even the poachers have trouble finding them, most of the “traditional medicine” powdered horn in China comes from Africa. When a Vietnamese government official announced in 2006 that powdered rhino horn had cured his relative of cancer, there was an immediate spike in demand, an immediate increase in price–and over 300 White and Black Rhinos were poached in South Africa alone. Illegally-killed rhinos are now so insanely valuable on the black market that not even zoo rhinos are safe–zoos in Africa have had to hire armed guards to prevent poachers from entering at night and killing them. And with some two billion potential customers in China and India, there simply are not enough rhinos in the entire world to feed the demand.

Tigers

The Tiger is the most powerful and feared predator in all of Asia, so it is no wonder that it has been invested, in myth and folklore, with magical and semi-divine properties. And, also, in “traditional medicine”. The “healing energy” of the Tiger, contained in its skin or its blood or its gall bladder or its powdered teeth/bones or its dried penis, is one of the most potent and highly-sought (and expensive) of all Indian and Chinese “traditional medicines”–touted as a cure for virtually everything and anything (including the old standby: wee-wee problems). In ancient days, of course, only the royals could afford to hunt tigers: today, any poor peasant with a hunting rifle can shoot a tiger and earn enough money to live on for several years. Tiger poaching became such a huge problem and provoked such international outrage that even China was forced to outlaw the import or sale of tiger products–though the law is seldom enforced (so much money flows into tiger-smuggling operations that bribery of police and local Communist Party government officials is just a routine business expense).

Pangolins

The Pangolin is an odd-looking mammal that was once found throughout southern Asia. Although it is a mammal, it does not have fur–instead it is covered by hard scales that make it look like a pine cone. These scales are actually flaps of compressed hair, and, like the rhino’s horn, are composed mostly of the protein keratin. Pangolin scales have long been an ingredient in “traditional medicine”, said to be a cure for such things as tumors and asthma. They are also considered to be a treatment for infertility and male impotence. For some reason that has been lost to history, some Taoist scholar long ago decided that the unborn fetus of the Pangolin was a particularly powerful “male enhancement”.

Because Pangolins are solitary animals and do not have high population densities, they could once only be collected in relatively small numbers in the immediate locality. But today, modern technology has changed that. As China became more wealthy, and as more and more rich Chinese men decided that they needed a wee-wee treatment, the Pangolin became increasingly more targeted, and the price skyrocketed. In 1990, a kilogram of Pangolin scales would sell for about $14 (which was, at that time, quite a lot of money for a rural Chinese peasant). Today, the price has soared to $200, and Pangolin meat (especially the fetus) sells for over $1,000 per pound. As a result, the Chinese population of Pangolins was virtually wiped out, dropping from around 50,000 to less than 5,000. As the numbers decreased in China and the Pangolin became legally protected, poachers turned to the surrounding countries, and began wiping out their Pangolin populations too–first in India, Nepal and Pakistan, then in Southeast Asia, and now in Africa. In the two-year period from 2011 to 2013, at least 200,000 Pangolins were illegally smuggled into China, most of them passing through Indonesia or Vietnam. (And not just into China–from 2000-2009, 85 illegal shipments of Pangolin were seized as they attempted to enter the United States, intended for “traditional medicine” shops in big-city “Chinatowns”.) As a result, the Pangolin is now considered to be “threatened” or “endangered” in nearly all of its global range.

Plants

To feed the enormous industry, many of the several thousand plants utilized in “traditional medicine” are now farm-raised, often on big plantations specially cleared for the purpose. But many other “medicinal” plants, for various reasons, cannot be grown commercially, and are therefore instead collected from the wild. And for many, the effects have been devastating. In 2008, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the wildlife monitoring group TRAFFIC did a joint study of just seven Asian plant species that were commonly used in Chinese and Indian “traditional medicine”, and found that all seven (Himalayan Yew, Snakeroot, Red Sanders, Kutki, Jatamansi, Elephant’s Foot and Desert Cistanche) were, despite legal protections under the CITES treaty on threatened and endangered species, being heavily harvested and illegally imported into India and China, and were under severe threat in their natural ranges. That same year, the Botanic Gardens Conservation International group listed several hundred “medicinal plants” that were being endangered through overcollection for the international market, including Hoodia, Warburgia, and Jaborandi. And in 2009 “The Times of India” newspaper looked at the status of 359 native plants utilized in traditional Ayurvedic “medicine” and found that a startling 335 of them, or 93 percent, were threatened or endangered, most of them due to overcollection.

The Future

In the short-term future, the problem will almost inevitably get worse. Despite the enormous ecological devastation that China’s use of “traditional medicines” has already caused, there are still over 800 million rural Chinese living in poverty, and as China’s economy grows and they too are lifted into a middle-class lifestyle, they will add to the demand for wild plants and animals, more than doubling the damage China is doing. Most of India’s population will also reach a similar economic level in just a few years. And waiting in the wings are other currently-poor nations with high populations who will in the near future undergo their own economic expansion–Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia–and add to the demand.

Ultimately, the only long-term solution to the problem that will actually work is education: people in poor rural countries will need to be taught that religious- and philosophy-based “medicine” doesn’t actually cure anything, that drinking cobra blood will not treat your fever, that maple bark will not relieve your arthritis, and that eating Tiger or Pangolin will not make your wee-wee get hard. (And then those poor rural people will need to be provided with actual effective medical care that will help them.) Most of the affected governments acknowledge this pressing need, but also point out that even if they had the resources to carry out such a massive program (and most of them don’t), the effort would still take years, perhaps decades. And for many of these wild animal and plant species, that will be way too late.

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2 thoughts on “How “Traditional Chinese Medicine” Is Pushing Species to Extinction”

  1. Considering that even in the supposedly educated west, homeopathy is thriving (indeed, I have met several western trained doctors who swear by it), I despair of the ability of education to do much about the problem. Most people apparently simply cannot learn critical thought, no matter what you do.

    In some cases, it might actually work to legalize the trade and encourage farming the animals in question. At the moment, all our rhino eggs are in one basket; legalize the trade in rhino products, and you might have rhino herds on farms from Texas to Argentina. Of course, the rhino populations may already be too low for this to work.

    I fear that both rhinos and elephants are probably doomed, whatever we do. The scarcer they become, the higher the price for the products, and eventually it will be perfectly profitable to simply hire a small army to outgun any guards.

    If only we could convince the Chinese that rats, cockroaches and mosquito larvae are a cure-all…

  2. Alas I too am skeptical that anything will be done. People like to make all sorts of pious noises about how they would like to do something to help, but the brutal reality is that nobody anywhere is actually willing to make the sacrifices that must be made in order to actually change things. So nothing gets done. 😦

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