Herbal medicine can be good for tigers too

Posted: 6 May 2003

Author: Emma Duncan and Jan Vertefeuille

Traditional Chinese medicine is the most widely practised traditional medicine system in the world. Its popularity is growing in the West too, where it is incorporated into many homeopathic and alternative remedies. But many are not aware that their medicine may be threatening the survival of animals like tigers and rhinos and plants like wild-grown ginseng. Emma Duncan and Jan Vertefeuille report.

As a child growing up in China, Cao Dan's mother and grandmother used traditional Chinese medicine to treat her illnesses: cucumber slices on her sore throat, herbal tea for upset stomachs, tiger balm for headaches. Cao DanCao Dan with TCM products.© WWF-USBut she didn't know that some traditional medicines were driving certain species to the brink of extinction, like ginseng, rhinos, tigers, and Asian bears. "I never heard of endangered species used in traditional medicine," she says. "There was no environmental education in China then."

Now living in the US, Dan still uses traditional Chinese medicine, or TCM, to treat some ailments. And her toddler, like many young Chinese-Americans, sees a paediatrician who attended an American medical school but who is also trained in TCM treatments.

These days, however, Dan makes sure to only use TCM remedies that do not contain ingredients derived from endangered animals or plants. And, as head of the TCM programme at WWF-US, she's working hard to raise awareness of TCM's impact on these species and to promote alternatives.

Nature at risk

TCM has been practised for more than 3,000 years. Practitioners use a variety of healing methods, such as acupuncture, massage, therapeutic exercise, and natural remedies, which include the use of more than 12,000 medicinal plants, 1,500 animals, and 80 minerals.

Tigers and other animals are threatened by continued poaching for traditional Chinese medicine.© WWF-Canon/Edward ParkerThe last few decades have seen an explosion in the popularity of TCM, fuelled in part by growing economies in China and other places in East Asia such as Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. It's popular in Western countries too - and not just within Chinese and other Asian communities. Practitioners are treating more and more Westerners attracted to the philosophy of TCM.

Indeed, some traditional treatments have become so mainstream in the West that many people probably don't even think of themselves as users of TCM. Ginseng, for example, is the third-most popular herb sold in US health food stores.

So it might come as a surprise to many in the West that some of these "all-natural" remedies could be putting nature at risk.

Threatened plants

Ginseng, called the "root of life" in Chinese and now used for everything from universal cure-alls to fertility enhancement, is already extinct in China and may be locally threatened in the wild in parts of North America. Although North American ginseng is cultivated for medicinal purposes, many believe that ginseng collected from the wild is more effective. Wild ginseng therefore commands much higher prices, is in high demand, and is being harvested at unsustainable levels.

Licorice root - commonly used to treat coughs, sore throats, and alleviate pain as well as in soft drinks and tobacco products - is also endangered. Due to excessive harvesting and habitat destruction, wild licorice now occurs in less than half its original area in northwest China, reduced from 13 million hectares (50,000 square miles) to about 5 million hectares (19,000 square miles).

Threatened species

Similarly, many TCM users and practitioners are not aware that their medicine threatens the survival of Asia's remaining tigers, rhinos, bears, and musk deer. Although a growing number of practitioners now prescribe herbal substitutes for body parts from these animals, the use of these animals is still deeply rooted in local East Asian traditional cultures. Use of these body parts also continues in North America and Western Europe. Tiger bone is used as a pain reliever for joints, for instance, while rhino horn is believed to reduce fever. And so, despite bans and trade regulations at international and national levels, these animals continue to be poached and their body parts traded illegally to supply TCM demands. Siberian Musk DeerSiberian musk deer (Moschus moschiferus), threatened by poaching.© WWF-Canon/Grigori MazmanyantsTogether with habitat loss, this poaching is the most immediate threat to the survival of tigers, rhinos, bears, and musk deer, which are all heading towards extinction in the wild in Asia. Poaching is exacerbated by the booming economies and growing wealth in many parts of Asia, which has increased not just demand, but also prices for many wildlife products.

Poaching problem

Clearly, regulations and bans need to be enforced to stop this poaching. Many conservation groups, including WWF and TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade programme of WWF and IUCN, are working on this on a number of fronts. This includes working with CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) to regulate the international trade of wild specimens of plants and animals; campaigning for strengthened national legislation to ban imports and sales of medicines containing endangered animal parts; and providing support to tackle poaching.

But Dan believes TCM users and practitioners also have an important role to play. "The main thing is education for people who use TCM and who have no clue how endangered species are used," she says. "And we need to wake up industry and TCM professionals and make them understand that there won't be TCM if we don't protect Mother Nature."

Educational campaign

The need to raise awareness became apparent at the first-ever symposium to bring together TCM practitioners, government regulatory officials, academics, and conservationists, which was hosted by TRAFFIC in 1995. Discussions revealed that most TCM participants did not know, for example, that tigers were endangered or realize there was a causal relationship between the tiger medicine trade and the decline of tigers in the wild.

Since then, WWF and TRAFFIC have conducted a number of surveys and education campaigns in the US, China, Hong Kong, and South Korea targeted at TCM manufacturers, retailers, and schools, as well as government agencies and TCM consumers. TRAFFIC has also worked to find herbal substitutes for endangered animals and, with WWF and the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine, worked to make people more aware of these substitutes.

The outreach is paying off. In San Francisco, for example, attitudes amongst Chinese-Americans are changing. In 2002, 90 per cent of TCM medical instructors and practitioners responding to a WWF survey said that protecting tigers and rhinos was more important than continuing to use them in TCM. That compares to just 60 per cent in 1997, before WWF began its public outreach campaign to the San Francisco TCM community. Similarly, TRAFFIC's work in South Korea has led to decreased use of tiger and rhino parts, with more doctors prescribing substitutes.

But use of tiger, rhino, bear, musk deer, and wild-grown ginseng must stop altogether if these species are to survive in the wild. And for this to happen, consumers must reject TCM remedies containing ingredients from endangered species.

"Users of traditional medicines must help prevent the over-exploitation of endangered species," says Dan. "Consumers should request herbal alternatives to tiger and rhino parts. And they should ask retailers - pharmacies, health food stores, online vendors - to offer evidence that the herbs they sell were collected sustainably or from cultivated specimens. By becoming aware and adding their voices to the debate, consumers around the world can be a powerful force for conservation."

Emma Duncan is Managing Editor at WWF International and Jan Vertefeuille is Senior Communications Officer at WWF-US and TRAFFIC North America.

Related links:

For further information on TCM and what is being done by WWF and the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine, visit http://www.tcmwildlife.org/

For more information on TRAFFIC, visit http://www.traffic.org

For a consumer guide on TCM products and a brochure, visit http://worldwildlife.org/trade/tcm.cfm

WWF's work on endangered species

For more information on CITES visit http://www.cites.org