Traditional Chinese medicine has boomed in recent years, thanks to increased purchasing power, especially Chinese Asian middle class. This ancient medicine is based on the concept of vital energy, that invades every corner of the body and organs, and can be acquired through ingested substances, as are parts of various animals. Despite numerous studies, there is no scientific evidence of its benefits to human health. In contrast, there is evidence of an alarming decline in populations of emblematic species such as tigers, rhinos or lions.
3000 years ago emerged, within the Shang Dynasty, a type of medicine that would completely change the life and habits of the Asian people. The basis of traditional Chinese medicine have a strong philosophical component and focus on the concept of ‘Qi’ or vital energy. This energy flows inside the body through channels or meridians, which in turn are connected to organs and bodily functions. The ‘Qi’ regulates the spiritual, physical and emotional balance of the person, and can be altered when the Yin and Yang (negative and positive energy) get unbalanced. This imbalance and alteration of vital energy is what leads to all kinds of diseases.
Since ancient times, diseases have been fought with many remedies, many of them derived from animals. Almost any Asian species has been used for traditional medicine, such as cows, wasps, leeches, scorpions, antelopes, sea horses, dogs or snakes. Despite the zero scientific evidence of its benefits, its popularity has been increasing with the population explosion and the purchasing power of Asian countries, especially China and Vietnam. Many ‘new rich’ find in these products a way to distance themselves from other social classes and show off their new lifestyle. As a result, many species are in danger of extinction in the coming decades if nothing is done about it.
In this article we will have a look at the 5 most threatened species by Chinese medicine, and the actions that are being carried out to improve their situation.
THE 5 MOST THREATENED SPECIES BY CHINESE MEDICINE
Tiger (Panthera tigris)
The tiger is undoubtedly the most emblematic and admired animal by traditional Chinese medicine. Practically all its parts has been used, such as its nose, tail, eyes, whiskers, brain, blood and even penis. Each part has been associated with a particular cure. Eating your brain, for example, combat both laziness and pimples, while the eyes are used to treat malaria and epilepsy.
Unlike other animals used for traditional medicine, tiger parts are not only sold to Asian countries like China, Taiwan, Japan or South Korea, but also to occidental countries, even the United States and United Kingdom. In fact, in cities like London, Birmingham or Manchester you can find products that claim to contain tiger bone. The price of tiger bone is between 140 and 370 dollars per kg in the US, while a cup of tiger penis soup (that it is used to increase virility) reaches 320 dollars.
Although there are only 3,200 tigers in the wild (of the 100,000 existing a century ago), there are countries that contain tigers as Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia who have not yet signed the CITES agreement, which means that hunting is still legal. In the airport of Hanoi, for example, it is still possible to buy bones, organs and tiger skins without any difficulty.Te
Despite the ban on trade in tiger bones in China in 1993, the business of the tiger is still a very important business in the country. In fact, as pointed out by the researcher and writer Judit Mills in an interview of Yale Environment 360, from that year the number of tiger farms increased rapidly, reaching, at present, the number of 6000 tigers in these places. Most of these farms are dedicated to the growing business of tiger wine, symbol of high status and wealth among the Chinese population. The tigers are fed like cattle until they are killed to extract their bones, which will be immersed in rice wine. The longer they remain in the broth, the higher the price of the bottles.
Just over a month ago, a scandal involving tigers and traditional medicine splattered the Kanchanaburi Tigers Temple in Thailand. In there, more than 40 dead tiger babies were found in freezers, allegedly in order to deal with them on the black market that involves this mythical species.
Asian black bear (Ursus thibetanus) and sun bear (Helarctos malayanus)
Bear bile has been used in traditional Asian medicine for thousands of years. Yore, bile was extracted once the bear was dead, using its meat as well. However, since 1980 the popularity of this product grew, and a flourishing industry was settled and growing year after year. It is estimated that there are currently more than 12,000 bears in farms bile extraction in China and Vietnam.
Thanks to its high levels of ursodeoxycholic acid, bear bile can help to treat liver ailments and bladder. However, the extraction of bile causes to bears an unimaginable damage, both physical and psychological. In most cases, bears are confined in cages whose size is like a phone booth, and are continuously sedated so they do not give problems. Poachers make them a hole in the gallbladder and let it drip in order to extract the bile. This heinous practice is still legal in China, although 87% of the population disagrees with this practice.
White rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum)
If we look back, it might seem that the situation of the white rhino is excellent. This African species was on the brink of extinction in the early twentieth century, when there were only 100 individuals. Fortunately, thanks to numerous international efforts, the species recovered surprisingly and currently has a population of about 20,000. However, the situation of rhinos is critical again, because of the poachers kill more than a thousand of them every year, which has reignited the alarms for this species.
The rhino (the Asian rhino in that time) has been hunted since the dawn of traditional medicine, as there are records of their hunting since 200 B.C. Horns, blood, skin and even urine have been used since ancient times as a remedy for various ailments such as nosebleeds, strokes, seizures and fever. Today, the main goal is his horn, which reaches exorbitant prices on the black market. A rhino horn can reach up to 46,000 euros per kilogram on the Asian black market, which has already been exceeded the price of gold. The business has prospered thanks to this great incentive, the ease of hunting these animals (they are slow, nearsighted and docile) and the lack of vigilance in the countries they live. The main destination for rhino horn is Vietnam, where the belief in their properties is stronger.
Pangolin (family Manidae)
Probably, the hunt that has increased more in recent times is the pangolin hunting, especially in China and Vietnam, its main markes. They are hunted for their meat and scales, wich are used for traditional Chinese medicine as a remedy for all kinds of diseases: malaria, anziety,depression, asthma and even cancer. Of course, scientific investigations have found no evidence of health benefits, and it is very unlikey to occur, because their scales are made of keratin, the same material that forms our fingernails and hair, or rhino horns.
Much of the hunted pangolins come from Myanmar, a country that has become, unfortunately, a gateway for most hunted pangolins in Asia or Africa. According to TRAFFIC, in the period from 2010-2014 were seized, only in Myanmar, 4339 kg of pangolin scales and 518 dead bodies. In the Philippines, in April 2013, a fishing boat containing 10,000 kg of pangolin scales was seized, which amount of 20,000 to 25,000 pangolins. With a population in continuous decline, the situation is far from improving. It is no wonder: a hunter, which in many cases has enough to survive, can gain up to 1,000 euros for just a single pangolin.
Lion (Panthera leo)
Lion has been the latest to join this unfortunate list. It was once one of the most abundant larger cats on the planet, with an estimated population of more than 400,000 individuals in 1950. Nowadays, it is calculated a population of no more than 20,000 individuals, a fact that has placed them in the Red List species in the Vulnerable category.
Although the greatest threat for the lion is still habitat loss, the increase of protect measures for tigers in Asia and their low number has placed the lion as a new target for the mafias, as indicated in this 2015 Nature article. In 1995 it was documented for the first time the use of parts of lion in traditional medicine, when it was discovered several typically tiger products containing lion parts. In December 2009 the CITES agreement allowed the export of skeletons lion to Asia. It is estimated that from that date until the end of 2011 more than 1160 bodies of lions were exported, mostly to Laos and Vietnam. The main use of lion bones is to serve as a substitute of tiger bones as a sexual enhancers.
CURRENT STATUS OF LAWS AND ACTIONS AIMED TO PROTECT ILLEGAL HUNTING OF THESE SPECIES
- Tiger: Many Asian nations such as China, Nepal, Japan, South Korea and Thailand have pledged to enact laws that prohibit trade of tiger products, preserving their habitat and form a regional network to stop the tigers trade. Hong Kong, which accounts for almost half of exports of tiger parts, has intensified controls, while Taiwan, thanks to a recent trade control law, conducted numerous seizures, arrests and extensive searches for illegal tiger parts.
- Asian black bear and sun bear: By mid-2015 it was known that an important pharmaceutical Chinese was working on an alternative synthetic product for bear bile. This product could finally end up with the bear bile farms. However, it is still necessary the total abolition of this practice in China.
- Rhinos: There is a strong debate about legalizing rhino horn trade in South Africa. Some NGOs believe that this would lead to a fall in prices on the black market, while others argue it would raise the demand and mafias would still control the market. TRAFFIC along with Save the Rhino International launched an awareness campaign in Vietnam to persuade consumers of rhinoceros horn to reject its use. In addition, TRAFFIC got the commitment from the Association of Traditional Medicine of Vietnam to promote the reduction of demand of rhino horns.
- Pangolin: Trade with pangolins and parts is protected by law in Myanmar, the most affected country by illegal trade. In addition, Asian pangolins are included in Appendix II of CITES, which means that international trade is prohibited. China is increasing control of smuggling pangolin, and has already imposed tough penalties to pangolin traffickers.
- Lions: They are listed in Appendix II of CITES, which means that trading of its parts is strictly controlled. Farms created for lion hunters are the main supply of bones for Chinese medicine, that means that, for now, this phenomenon is having little impact on wild populations.
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- Bauer, H, Van Der Merwe, S (2002). The African lion database. Cat news. Vol 36: pag 41-53
- Chardonet, P (2002). Conservation of African lion. International Foundation for the Conservation of Wildlife.
- El País: El último rugido de Cecil
- El País: Última oportunidad para salvar de la caza furtiva a los grandes de África
- National Geographic
- El Mundo: La devastación del pangolín
- Cover photo: Edited from: Imagi; Infotigres; Pinterest; Pasionanimalblog; Pinterest.