Can Knowledge of Traditional Chinese Medicine Help Protect Wildlife?

Sun Simiao was a titanic figure in the world of traditional Chinese medicine. Born in the late 6th century during the Tang Dynasty, he can boast a remarkable life span of 101 years. Sun produced books that serve as some of the basic scriptures of traditional Chinese medicine, such as the one that roughly translates to mean: Essential emergency formulas worth a thousand gold pieces.

Although Western medicine is widely used across China today, the traditional method that Sun practiced is still an important practice for many people in China and elsewhere, and sometimes helps in cases where modern treatments are not enough.

But some of the ingredients for remedies listed by Sun or later adopted by doctors of traditional Chinese medicine have brought practitioners into conflict with the conservation community. The demand for products like horns has types like that western black rhinoceros critically endangered while pangolins the most traded animal in the world due to the demand for their scales and meat. Even a species of lizard once widespread in Southeast Asia, the Tokay Gecko, is harvested in such large numbers for use in medicine that they are Disappear from some areas.

Meanwhile, the demand for tiger parts has led to poaching throughout its range and even affects leopards when used as substitute ingredients. “Our goal is extinction in the wild,” says Judith Mills, author of the book Blood of the tiger, which describes in detail the struggle for the preservation of the big cats in the face of massive demand.

While many are quick to blame the practice of Traditional Chinese Medicine in general, the reality is not that simple. Some practitioners say the mistake lies in misinterpretation of Sun’s original texts and bad faith marketing efforts by wildlife parts suppliers and controversial tiger farms.

A separate market

In the 1980s, the supply of wild tigers (and other animals such as bears, pangolins and rhinos), the parts of which are used in traditional medicine, became scarce. “China was starting to run out of its own national supply of these animals,” says Mills.

In the face of this decline, state and private profiteers established tiger farms in China to meet demand for parts of wildlife at home and abroad. The idea was that the supply of legally grown parts would reduce the demand for poaching products.

But for a variety of reasons, Mills says, the plan didn’t work exactly as intended. First of all, the widespread availability of legal parts only increased demand, which then trickled down to the black market parts of the market.

Some people think that these wild-caught parts are actually more effective as medicine, according to surveys in five major cities in China by. were carried out Mahendra Shrestha, Program director of the Tiger Conservation Partnership at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, and others. “Various sources have shown that the wild population is still in high demand because people prefer products from the wild rather than from captivity,” he says.

In addition, with the rise in the average wage of the Chinese, more and more people can afford products that were previously only available to the elite. This increased demand has also increased calls for wildlife products that cannot be bred, such as those from pangolins or rhinos.

Change attitude

Poaching occurs in many different parts of the world for a variety of reasons. For example, elephant ivory is valued as a luxury material, while other animals are valued for their bush meat. Taken together, this practice poses great challenges for conservationists. But the demand for traditional Chinese medicine is often driven by people who are concerned about the health and livelihood of their loved ones. When children suffer from diseases that cannot be cured by Western medicine, desperate parents will do everything possible to find solutions.

However, some traditional medicine practitioners say that these uses are primarily misdirected. Lixing Lao, professor and president of the Virginia University of Integrative Medicine, prefers to use the original texts written by Sun Simiao nearly 1,500 years ago. Sun wrote that animal parts can sometimes be used to save lives – with the caveat that these parts should only come from animals that died of natural causes.

“Killing another life to save ours is against the principles of Chinese medicine,” says Lao, adding that Sun later in his career completely opposed the use of animal parts. Many of Sun’s disease remedies have multiple options listed as ingredients. Botanical products can often perform the same function, so there is no need to turn to rhinoceros horns or tiger bones. “Chinese medicine has been practiced for many years, but if you look at the literature, animal parts are a small fraction,” says Lao.

In other cases, Lao says, commercial companies twist the original recipes for profit and market new types of products as replacements for wealthy people looking for miracle cures. “You exaggerate a lot; That makes things worse, ”he says. Traditional texts may have recommended the use of Chinese pangolin scales in some cases. But now that these animals are nearly extinct in the wild, suppliers claim that the scales of African pangolin species perform the same functions. In some cases, marketers even encourage pangolin meat to be consumed for health purposes, although it has never been part of traditional medicine. “The African pangolin is different from the Chinese, but they don’t care,” says Lao.

Shrestha adds that prices have gotten so high that leopard and even lion parts are now sometimes being replaced with tiger bones. This has contributed to a huge increase in demand and the population of Indochinese leopards in Southeast Asia, for example.

Solutions from within

Mills sees the situation as particularly dire, given the amount of money involved and the desperation of those seeking possible treatments. “We’re talking about a lot of money here and also about national pride,” she says.

Some Westerners may poke fun at the idea that any of these practices work at all, but that’s also inaccurate – some traditional remedies work. However, bear bile works as a treatment for some liver diseases, for example Synthetic substitutes for these wildlife products are available.

But the practice of Western medicine can also pose a threat to certain species of wildlife. Horseshoe crabs, for example, are harvested in large quantities in Delaware Bay to obtain a key ingredient that is widely used in a number of medicines. including COVID-19 vaccines. These crabs are in decline – partly due to this harvest – and its loss affects a whole range of migratory birds that feed on crab eggs, such as red knots.

And both Lao and Mills say there is hope in China’s younger generation, many of whom are showing signs of increasing awareness and concern about conservation issues. Laos has worked with a number of ingredients suppliers who have pledged not to use illegal products from poachers.

Lishu Li, who works with the Wildlife Conservation Society’s China program, says the younger, educated population in China is definitely more concerned about these issues. But gaps remain between public perception and actual decision-making. If product manufacturers were forced to disclose where the ingredients came from, the resulting transparency could help reduce the demand for wildlife parts. “Sometimes many consumers and doctors are not aware or are not aware that these animal parts are from endangered species [that the endangered status] of these species are related to their medicinal uses, ”says Li.

She also notes that the government has recently paid a lot of attention to environmental protection – not only in China but abroad as well. The government has also increased protection for some species such as pangolins and tokay geckos. But overall, she says, conservation efforts still face a general lack of public awareness. Ultimately, says Li, conservationists and practitioners of traditional medicine would work better together: “Too much controversial finger pointing, too few suggested solutions.”

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