KATE FOX

 Environmental Journalist

 

The Hidden Dangers of Traditional Chinese Medicine

 

With globalisation distorting demand for Traditional Chinese Medicine and solutions only inciting poaching, what options are there?

 

 

The Evolution of Traditional Chinese Medicine

 

However, TCM's deceptively provincial branding is an oxymoron that belies the enormity and influence of this multi-million dollar industry.   Since TCM's inception into mainstream medicine after The Chinese Revolution in 1949, China's population has more than doubled, creating an exponential increase in demand.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Historical, present and estimated future population figures

for the World and China.  (Worldometers, 2017)

 

 

Although China's population is projected to slow, there are other more insidious pressures influencing TCM demand.  Globalisation.  This buzz word of all wanna-be political anarchists is also the cause of many environmental problems.  The globalisation of TCM is no exception.

 

Economic globalisation has seen Western led capitalism seamlessly seeping into Communist China, promoting an insatiable hunger for international trade.  The economic potential of TCM has been fully recognised and ruthlessly exploited.  Lixin Huang, American President of TCM, revealed in an interview with Curtis Abraham from the New Scientist how the practice has now spread to 70 countries.

 

However, the covert spread of cultural globalisation has had an even greater impact on demand of endangered species in TCM.  TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, is at the forefront of research.  They reveal in their report 'Rhino horn consumers, who are they?' that capitalist led ideals that value expensive commodities, is fuelling demand as a status symbol.  This pitiful spread of shallow Western consumerist standards has, according to TRAFFIC, "been identified as the strongest driver of the current rhino poaching crisis."

 

Global transport and communication systems further reduce constraints that once protected geographically separate species.  Historically, when hunters poached a local species to extinction, the problem stopped there.  Now poachers are able to look further afield for replacement supplies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Number of rhino poached in South Africa between 2000-2014 (Saving the Rhino)

 

 

 

In 2010, records show these Vietnamese trophy hunters were responsible for a staggering 171 rhino hunts in South Africa.  As hunters "would completely forego any proper trophy preparation" it implied their motives for killing rhino lay elsewhere.

 

Globalisation has clearly stimulated an explosion in demand for TCM but Lixin Huang further highlights a much overlooked and fundamental problem.  Stagnant sourcing methods mean 80% of plants, animals and mineral ingredients are still being "collected in the wild."  With little chance of the globalisation genie being wedged back into the bottle, this mismatched supply and demand chain spells disaster for targeted TCM animal species.

 

 

Understanding the problem

There are two problems here; demand greatly outstripping supplies and pressures on wild populations of animals.  There are solutions for both.  Substituting alternative animal species is one solution and is primarily meant to protect endangered populations but also allows demand to be met.  Farming TCM species primarily focuses on meeting demand and in theory protects wild populations.

 

There is a level of logic to both solutions but a closer examination should cause louder conservational alarm bells to ring.  This is because they accentuate TCM's dynamic nature making presently limited exploitation of animal species both infinite and unpredictable.  Furthermore, neither of these solutions attempt to quash demand.

 

 

 

How substitution fails as a solution 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Male Saiga Antelope

 

 

 

Despite the TCM community having come on leaps and bounds in their knowledge, rhetoric and action they continue to promote substitution of animal species as a solution to endangered TCM species.  They have failed to make the link between substitution and future Saiga scenarios.  Sadly, this approach simply shunts risk of extinction onto another species and will jeopardise an unknown quantity of species.

 

 

Farming Unpicked

 

Overlooking the cruelty associated with farming in less regulated developing countries, it may seem to present a potentially sensible alternative to substitution.  Farming allows supply to meet demand without threatening wild populations.  In theory, if the market was flooded with farmed TCM products it could drive the price down.  This would in turn remove its demand as a status symbol.

 

However, the market is a fickle creature and can react unpredictably.  For example, if farmed animals protect wild populations enough to boost their numbers, this would erase their illegal status.  This in turn would remove the stigma of purchasing illegal endangered species, potentially allowing demand to soar from a different source.  

 

An example of the complexity and ultimate failure of flooding the market with endangered species can be seen with ivory.  CITES allowed ivory stockpiles to be sold to Japan and China in 2008.  According to IFAW and many other NGOs, flooding the market meant "ivory prices skyrocketed, fuelling increased elephant poaching and ivory trafficking."

 

Furthermore, making legalised farmed ingredients visible on the shelf also naturally boosts demand.  This logic caused the statutory screening of cigarette displays in the UK.  Health Minister Anne Milton said "people are recruited into smoking by colourful, eye-catching, cigarette displays."  The same theory can be applied to any product.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                                                       

 

 

                                                           

 

 

                                                                      Farming boosts supply but in turn creates alternative products

 

 

In 2006, the report concluded that "a number of prescriptions and single herbs have been selected as suitable alternatives."  However, despite The Journal of Chinese Medicine advocating these results on their website, there is little evidence that this has been taken up with the same gusto as Saiga Antelope.  Legitimate concerns about online sales of endangered species is redirecting funding and research leaving a void of knowledge and an incomplete solution.  Understanding the barriers to the uptake of easily farmed plant alternatives could provide the key to ending a cycle of over-exploitation that has so tarnished the TCM industry.

 

 

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This can be seen when Vietnam's last Javan rhino was poached in 2010.  Statistics compiled by a charity called Saving the Rhino revealed this coincided with an exponential increase in South African rhino poaching.  One might question whether this is a random correlation.  However, a 2012 TRAFFIC report entitled, 'The South Africa-Viet Nam Rhino Trade Nexus,' uncovered the arrival of Vietnamese trophy hunters in South Africa at this time.  

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Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has gained an unenviable reputation for over-exploiting animal species and driving them to the brink of extinction.  Although justifiable, notorious coverage of tiger and rhino eradication has deflected attention away from less glamourous but more alarming problems within the TCM industry; a dangerously mismatched supply and demand chain and solutions that threaten to chip away at an unquantifiable number of species.

 

TCM prescriptions are unregulated, dynamic and adaptive and consequently there is conflicting data on how many animal species are used in TCM.  However, according to South African Vet, J. Still, only 13% of TCM ingredients are composed of animal derivatives.  Senior Editor for Encyclopedia Britannica's Advocacy for Animals, Brian Duignan, estimates this at approximately 36 animals.  With the 2011 Census of Marine Life estimating 8.7 million species on the planet, it is clear that TCM only uses a minute percentage.

Saiga Antelope - Wiki - CC01.0UniversalPublicDomai

In a desperate attempt to save the rhino from extinction, the WWF redirected the markets' insatiable appetite to the Saiga Antelope.  According to WWF, this substitute was based on research they funded in 1990 at the Hong Kong University, with results finding Saiga horn could "reduce fever in rats."

 

With global Saiga populations nearing 1 million in 1994 and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) assessing them as stable, one can appreciate their rather naive logic.  Dr. Esmond Bradley Martin, a consultant WWF ecologist, was consequently engaged by the UN Environment Programme to promote this substitution in Asian pharmacies.

 

The results on the once prolific Saiga antelope was nothing short of catastrophic.  According to the IUCN Red List, the global Saiga population is now "estimated at ca 50,000."  With only male Saiga having horns, the surviving 50,000 are mostly female, furher jeopardising this now critically endangered species.

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There is also evidence that bear and tiger farms, instead of quashing poaching for TCM, are creating new markets for wines, culinary and cosmetic products.  Ultimately, solutions such as farming can create unpredictable and potentially uncontrollable outcomes due to the highly complex socio-economic interactions.

 

So if animal substitutions and farming do not work, what options are there?  In 2001, IFAW and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) spent £67,500 contracting Middlesex University to research this dilemma.  Their aim was to seek acceptable TCM plant alternatives to rhino horn, bear bile and tiger bone.  Thus protecting endangered species, removing animal welfare concerns and supporting the TCM industry.

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