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The Council of the European Union recently set the EU’s 2022-2025 priorities for the fight against serious and organized crime through the European Multidisciplinary Platform against Criminal Threats (EMPACT). Environmental crime, including wildlife trafficking, is one of the 10 priorities set by Member States. We welcome this prioritization and believe that it underscores the growing importance of environmental crime in the EU, and in particular wildlife trafficking, which has become one of the most lucrative organized crime activities in the world.
Wildlife trafficking is any environmental crime that includes the illegal trafficking, smuggling, poaching, trapping or gathering of endangered species, protected wildlife (including animals and plants that are subject to fishing quotas and regulated by permits), or derived products.
Wildlife trade is a global problem that is also reaching the European Union, where the vast majority of illegal wildlife products seized by EU authorities are pharmaceuticals, mainly traditional medicinal products derived from plants, according to the latest report from wildlife NGO TRAFFIC.
The World Health Organization’s definition of traditional medicine is “the sum of knowledge, skills, and practices based on theories, beliefs, and experiences found in different cultures, whether explainable or not, that are used to maintain good health”. as well as in the prevention, diagnosis, amelioration or treatment of physical and mental illnesses?. Traditional Chinese medicine, European folk medicine and Ayurveda are some examples.
Traditional medicine is adopted by its practitioners to treat and prevent disease using ingredients derived from plants and animals. Today around 100 million Europeans use traditional medicine, and some of them are likely consumers of illegal wildlife products. This is reflected in the fact that, according to TRAFFIC, almost two fifths of the seizures of illegally traded wildlife products from the EU were medical in nature. The most commonly seized medicines were derivatives of costus root, ginseng panax, seahorse and king cobra.
The use of traditional medicine has been very close to indigenous communities around the world for centuries. Some have even used it as an antidote to destructive activity on their ancestral lands. In the case of the municipality of Cajamarca, a municipality in the Andes, residents strongly opposed mining activities that damage their natural heritage. They successfully developed a strategy to sell agroecological and medicinal products in the area to prevent mining activities in their area. This is an example of how biodiversity conservation and the sustainable use of traditional medicines can go hand in hand.
However, some other types of traditional medicine are destructive to wildlife and ecosystems, causing many species to become extinct. International trade in rhinoceros horns and tiger parts is prohibited under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in response to the increasing demand from Asian nations over the past decade as they have become richer.
This wealth has led to a poaching crisis that has decimated many of these protected populations. While the main reason tiger and rhinoceros poaching is currently the medicinal properties associated with them by traditional medicine, we should not forget that there are other reasons that contribute to these species becoming extinct, such as: which are a consequence of human action.
Cure a Global Addiction
Globalization has exponentially increased the demand for some traditional medicines in Europe too, with negative effects on wildlife. Take the example of the caterpillar mushroom (also known as Yartsa Gunbu or Yarshagumba). Originally from Nepal and an important part of traditional Chinese medicine, its ever-increasing demand has skyrocketed its price in recent years, leading to conflict between villages (even deaths) over access to the mushroom and the mushroom’s near-extinction resulted in the wild. The cost of a pound of wild caterpillar mushroom reached $ 63,000 in 2019, making it the most expensive mushroom in the world.
Is it worth killing tigers for their bones or rhinos for their horns? Or contribute to the extinction of the caterpillar fungus in the wild or keep bears in inhuman conditions to collect their bile? Despite the fact that there is no scientific evidence to support the effectiveness of bear bile as a cure for cancer, colds, hangovers, and more, black bear bile is illegally traded as a cure for these diseases, promoting ecosystem destruction and global crime. Studies have even shown that substitutes for such products made from non-endangered plants are more effective, as their active ingredients have been shown to prevent and treat certain diseases.
Traditional medicine users in Europe must face the reality that many of the ingredients they rely on for their medicines are too rare and too precious to be sacrificed. Many forms of traditional medicine traded in the EU do not comply with international treaties such as CITES or local laws on the protection of wild animals. Animals and plants are poached and harvested every year to meet the global demand for various medicinal products. For example, more than 20 million seahorses are killed annually to provide a key ingredient in 90 traditional Chinese remedies and medicines.
In addition, the effects of individual species extinction are greater than the sum of its parts as it impoverishes and destabilizes ecosystems and threatens global health care. While land use changes, including through intensified agriculture, pollution, the climate crisis and invasive alien species, are other drivers of global biodiversity loss, the overexploitation of resources, including species traded as traditional medicine, also contributes to global biodiversity loss at.
The impact of resource overexploitation on persistent biodiversity loss and environmental degradation is immense and has serious implications for global well-being and health care. The harvest of some animal species can lead to the spread of zoonotic diseases, as pandemics have the same causes as the climate and biodiversity crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic shows the devastating consequences such an outbreak can have on health systems. In addition, the ecological degradation caused by biodiversity loss has wider implications for human health by reducing the quality of air, soil and water, increasing the risk of disease and reducing the chances of adequate health care.
Traditional medicine users need to become responsible consumers and avoid treatments that are harmful to the earth, wildlife and us. Only choose sustainable products that do not disrupt ecosystems, poaching and illegal harvesting, and request legal certification for them. In addition, the EU should effectively enforce and strengthen the measures of the EU Action Plan against Wildlife Trafficking, which is due to be revised this year, in order to combat this criminal activity in Europe.
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