Sun Simiao was a titanic figure in the world of traditional Chinese medicine. Born in the late 6th century during the Tang Dynasty and enjoying a remarkable lifespan of 101 years, he was revered in China – much like the Greek physician Hippocrates was among practitioners of Western medicine. Sun has produced books that are among the foundational writings on traditional Chinese medicine, such as the one that roughly translates to Essential formulas for emergencies that are worth a thousand gold coins.
Despite the widespread adoption of Western medicine throughout China today, the traditional methodology practiced by Sun is still an important practice for many people in China and elsewhere, sometimes helping in cases where modern treatments are insufficient.
But some of the ingredients in the remedies Sun listed, or later adopted by traditional Chinese medicine doctors, have brought practitioners into conflict with the wildlife conservation community. The demand for products like horns has driven species like the western black rhino to extinction, while pangolin species have become most trafficked animal around the world due to the demand for their scales and meat. Even a species of lizard once common in Southeast Asia, the tokay gecko, is harvested in such numbers for use in medicine that it is disappear from certain regions.
Meanwhile, the demand for tiger parts has led to poaching throughout their range and even affects leopards when used as substitute ingredients. “What we’re headed for is extinction in the wild,” says book author Judith Mills tiger’s bloodwhich details the struggle to conserve big cats in the face of massive demand.
While many are quick to point fingers at the practice of traditional Chinese medicine in general, the reality is not that simple. Some practitioners say the fault lies with misinterpretations of Sun’s original texts, as well as bad faith marketing efforts by wildlife parts suppliers and controversial tiger farms.
A captive market
In the 1980s, the supply of wild tigers (and other animals such as bears, pangolins and rhinos) whose parts are used in traditional medicine was scarce. “China has started to run out of its own domestic supply of these animals,” Mills says.
Faced with this decline, the government and private profiteers in China have established tiger farms to appease the demand for wild animal parts both domestically and abroad. The idea was that the supply of legally grown parts would reduce the demand for wild-sourced products supplied by poachers.
But for a variety of reasons, Mills says, the plan didn’t exactly work out as expected. For starters, the widespread availability of legal coins only increased demand, which then trickled down to black market segments.
Some people believe that these wild parts are actually more effective as a medicine, according to surveys conducted in five major cities in China by Mahendra Shrestha, program director of the Tiger Conservation Partnership at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, and others. “Various sources have shown that there is still a huge demand on the wild population because people prefer wild rather than captive products,” he says.
Moreover, as the average Chinese citizen’s salary has increased, more people can afford the kinds of products that were previously only available to the elite. This increase in demand has also spurred the demand for wildlife products that cannot be grown, such as pangolins or rhinos.
Poaching occurs in many parts of the world, for various reasons. Elephant ivory is prized as a luxury material, for example, while other animals may be prized for their bushmeat. Taken together, these practices present serious challenges for conservationists. But the demand for traditional Chinese medicine is often driven by people concerned about the health and livelihoods of their loved ones. When children suffer from illnesses that cannot be cured by Western medicine, desperate parents will do anything to find potential solutions.
However, some traditional medicine practitioners say these uses are wrong in the first place. Lixing Lao, professor and president of the University of Integrative Medicine in Virginia, prefers to draw inspiration from 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 such parts should only come from animals that have died of natural causes.
“If you kill another life to save our life, it goes against the principle of practicing Chinese medicine,” Lao says, adding that later in his career, Sun completely disavowed the use of parts of Chinese medicine. ‘animals. Many Sun remedies for ailments have multiple options listed as ingredients. Botanicals can often perform the same function, so there is no need to turn to rhino horns or tiger bones. “Chinese medicine has been practiced for many years, but if you look at the literature, animal parts are a small part of it,” says Lao.
In other cases, Lao says, business operations hijack original recipes for profit, marketing new types of products as substitutes for the wealthy in search of miracle cures. “They exaggerate a lot of things; it makes it worse,” he says. Traditional texts might have recommended the use of scales from Chinese pangolin species in some cases. But now that these animals have almost disappeared in the wild, suppliers claim that the scales of African pangolin species perform the same functions. In some cases, traders even encourage the consumption of pangolin meat for health purposes, when it has never been part of traditional medicine. “The African species of pangolin is different from the Chinese, but they don’t care,” Lao said.
Shrestha adds that the prices have become so high that leopard and even lion parts are now sometimes replaced by tiger bones. This has contributed to a huge increase in demand, eliminating populations of Indochinese leopards in Southeast Asiafor example.
Mills sees the situation as particularly grim given the amount of money at stake and the desperation of those seeking potential treatments. “We’re talking a lot of money here, and also national pride,” she said.
Some Westerners may scoff at the idea that any of these practices work in the first place, but that’s also inaccurate – some traditional remedies do work. Bear bile works as a treatment for certain liver diseases, for example, although synthetic substitutes for these wildlife products are available.
But the practice of Western medicine can also pose a threat to certain types of wild animals. Horseshoe crabs, for example, are harvested in large numbers in the Delaware Bay for an essential ingredient they contain that is widely used in a number of medicines, including COVID-19 vaccines. These crabs are in decline – partly because of this harvest – and their loss affects a whole flock of migrating 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 growing awareness and concern for conservation issues. Lao has worked with some ingredient suppliers who have pledged not to use illegal products from poachers.
Lishu Li, who works with the Wildlife Conservation Society’s China program, says China’s younger, educated population is significantly more concerned about these issues. But gaps remain between popular perception and actual decision-making. She says if product makers were required to display where ingredients came from, the resulting transparency could help reduce demand for wild animal parts. “Sometimes many consumers and physicians are unaware that these animal parts are from endangered species, or lack awareness [that the endangered status] of these species are related to their medical use,” Li explains.
She also noted that the government has recently paid a lot of attention to ecological protection, not only in China, but also overseas. The government has also strengthened the protection of certain species, such as pangolins and tokay geckos. But overall, she says, conservation efforts still have to contend with a general lack of awareness among the general public. Ultimately, Li says conservationists and traditional medicine practitioners would be better off working together: “Too many controversial critics, too few proposed solutions.”