Wildlife in Traditional Medicines

Traditional medicine has at its heart the use of naturally-occurring medicinal products in order to restore the body’s harmony between negative and positive forces, or yin and yang, when they are out of balance. Sadly, the commercial exploitation of wild animals for the rapidly growing traditional medicine industry is now causing huge animal welfare problems, and threatening whole species with extinction.

What you should know

  • Traditional medicines derived from plants and animals have been used in many parts of the world for centuries, to cure everything from fevers to epilepsy, gout to impotence. With increasing consumer purchasing power, particularly in the far East, demand for traditional medicine products has increased markedly in recent years. Indeed traditional Asian (Chinese) medicine products are currently used by up to half the world’s population, as part of a worldwide trade worth billions of dollars, and its popularity is extending well beyond its traditional Asian markets. The Chinese herbal medicine trade in the UK is worth upwards of £150 million, and is growing at around 20% per year.
  • While the usefulness of many traditional products is not in dispute, there is little scientific basis for the efficacy of others.
  • Less than 10% of products in the Chinese traditional medicine pharmacopoeia contain animal derivatives. However, the lack of effective animal welfare legislation in many Asian countries means there is little or no protection against the cruel exploitation of animals for components of traditional medicines, and the massive and growing demand for products is threatening the very survival of some species.
  • Powdered rhinoceros horn has been used for centuries as a treatment for fever, rheumatism and gout, among other things. However, recent claims by a Vietnamese official that he used it to cure his cancer have resulted in huge increases in demand, and street prices as high as US$60,000/kg have been reported for powdered horn in Vietnam. As a result, the illegal poaching of rhinos in Africa and Asia has soared, threatening rhinos across their range. Poachers are ruthless, leaving orphaned rhino calves to starve to death while they pine next to their dead mothers. Ironically, rhino horn consists of nothing more than Keratin – you might just as well chew your own fingernails!
  • The trade in tiger parts has played a big part in the demise of the wild tiger across its range, from 100,000 a century ago to just over 3,000 today. Many tiger parts have been used in traditional medicines, although the only one remaining in the modern Traditional Chinese Medicine Materia Medica is tiger bone, which is boiled and ground down for use in “tiger bone wine” and used as a cure for rheumatism. Ironically, even though the trade in tiger parts from all sources is illegal under both international and Chinese domestic law, there are currently thought to be more than three times as many tigers living in appalling conditions on Chinese “tiger farms” than there are left in the wild.
  • Various parts of bears, including the meat, brain, bone, blood, and paws, have also been used for centuries. However the biggest demand is for bear bile, which is used to treat fever, convulsions, trauma, haemorrhoids and other “heat” related conditions. Although there is some scientific basis for the efficacy of bear bile, perfectly good herbal and synthetic alternatives are widely available. In spite of this, the demand for bile continues to decimate Asiatic black bear populations throughout Asia, and to threaten bear populations as far afield as North America. The demand has also resulted in the growth of cruel bile farms where captured or captive-bred bears spend a life of misery incarcerated in tiny cages being milked for their bile. It is estimated that as many as 10,000 bears are kept on farms in China (where bile farming is legal), and around 4,000 in Vietnam (where it is technically illegal).
  • The rhino, tiger and bear are among the more charismatic of animals affected by the traditional medicine trade, but many other species are also being plundered, including pangolins, leopards and snow-leopards, musk deer, saiga antelopes and seahorses.
  • The consumers of traditional medicines made from animal parts are often unaware of the impact their purchases are having on the welfare and conservation of wild animals, and while demand continues to grow, the poaching and abuse of animals will continue to increase in order to supply the demand, and to reap the huge profits offered by the trade.
  • Ultimately, the trade will only stop if people can be persuaded not to buy products containing animal derivatives.

What you can do

  • Don’t become part of the problem – avoid buying or consuming traditional medicines made from animal products. Instead, research the products you are interested in, and purchase products made from herbal or other plant derivatives that are manufactured with respect for the environment.
  • In many countries, there are accreditation bodies which demand certain standards of their member practitioners, and it is worth checking out whether these standards meet your expectations. For example, see the accreditation programme on the website of the Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners (UK)
  • If you see products on sale which you think might be illegal, contact the local authorities in the country in which you are travelling. Alternatively, contact the embassy or consulate of that country on your return home. Try and take photographs of the product and note the name and location of the outlet, in order to be in a position to supply as much information as possible to the authorities.
  • If your holiday or tour includes a visit to a facility which produces or sells traditional medicines containing animal parts or derivatives, ask which animals they have been derived from and whether the practice is legal. If you are in any doubt, let your tour operator know your concerns.

Where does this occur?

Traditional medicines are most commonly available on East and South-East Asian countries, such as China, Vietnam, Korea, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Indonesia. However, traditional medicines are also available in many Western countries, to service demand from the Asian communities in these countries, as well as the growing demand from Westerners.

Links to other organisations for further information