Certain Chinese healers use an awful lot of rare-animal ingredients to make their remedies: rhinoceros horn, alligator meat, bear bile, and tiger…parts, to name just a few. The treatments are scientifically unproven and against the law in China and many other countries. What’s worse, they’re driving some species toward extinction.
The term “traditional Chinese medicine” covers a wide range of treatments, making numbers difficult to come by. That said, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (part of the National Institutes of Health) estimated way back in 1997 that there were more than 10,000 practitioners of TCM in the United States alone. The numbers would obviously be far, far higher in China.
Although the vast majority of practitioners obey national laws, even a small number of rogue healers can put already-dwindling wildlife populations at risk, including tigers, rhinos, moon bears, sun bears, musk deer, and bantengs (a species of wild cattle).
The illegal wildlife trade is universally recognized as a problem. But that hasn’t stopped some people from popping their pangolin pills.
To understand why, I spoke with experts in both conservation and Chinese medical practices to see what can be done to stop the use of endangered species. The most popular approach they suggested was substitution—convincing herbalists to use dog bones rather than tiger bones, for instance, or coptis root instead of rhino horn, and vaccaria seeds instead of pangolin scales. They could be right. A substitution campaign could be the most expedient and practical way to save tigers and other species from going extinct.
Still, there’s something that seems both unambitious and incomplete about this strategy. The root of the problem is not a lack of environmental awareness or supply. There’s something fishy, you see, about "traditional Chinese medicine" (and it’s not just the use of the critically endangered bahaba fish to treat heart and lung disease). It’s right there in the name itself.
“If something is traditional, you don’t really need to put the word traditional in its name,” says Bridie Andrews, a history professor at Bentley University and author of The Making of Modern Chinese Medicine, 1850–1960. “That should alert you something is strange.”
Despite what you might assume, traditional Chinese medicine is not the collected wisdom of the ages, passed organically from generation to generation. Not even close. It’s a modern invention undertaken for administrative expediency in the 1950s. Contemplating China’s vast and growing population, Chairman Mao Zedong recognized that he didn’t have nearly enough trained doctors. To cover the care gap, he directed his subordinates to collect and codify a hodgepodge of folk treatments and herbal remedies that minimally trained practitioners could carry out. That set of practices became a sort of brand, marketed as traditional Chinese medicine, or TCM.
The array of folk remedies administered across Chinese history is broad, and rare-animal treatments represent just a tiny portion. Even so, that some of these practices made it into TCM is not surprising. Rhino horn has been used for more than 2,000 years. The Ben Cao Gang Mu, written by 16th-century physician Li Shizhen, contains a volume on the use of animal parts belonging to species now endangered. Other treatments seem to derive from mystical traditions. Tigers are strong and agile, thus some Chinese medicine enthusiasts believe consuming their bones will restore strength and agility.
If something is traditional, you don’t need to put the word ‘traditional’ in its name. That should alert you something is strange.
The originators of these ideas are not necessarily to blame. When Li wrote his compendium, medical practices the world over were little more than wild guesses, and Li’s were about as good as anyone else’s. Nobody in his era believed we could hunt a species into oblivion. The very concept of extinction didn’t arise until at least the late 18th century.
That doesn’t, however, excuse Mao, who openly admitted that he neither took traditional remedies nor believed they worked.
The real problem with Mao's actions lies in the codification of these healthcare options. By marketing a suite of remedies as TCM, Mao popularized the notion that old treatments are good simply because they are old. This idea has proven incredibly resilient.
A troubling portion of the population—not just in China, but worldwide—holds ancient medicines to a lower standard of evidence than modern options. The idea even infects our legal system. Your local pharmacy is stocked with ground-up herbs that are not always proven safe or effective but are simply assumed to be okay under a federal loophole.
Make no mistake: Endangered species remedies are unproven. Researchers based mainly in China and Hong Kong have tested the ability of ground rhino horn to lower fever in rats and rabbits. The studies are hopelessly confused. About half of them suggest there is an effect, while the other half come up empty. They are all published in low-impact journals that display an obvious bias in favor of ancient treatments. If a pharmaceutical manufacturer petitioned the FDA for approval with that kind of evidence—a handful of poorly constructed rodent studies with mixed results—regulators would laugh them out the door. And yet, some people would still want to try it simply because an anonymous person living at a time when the average life expectancy was just under 40 endorsed it. Others might just like the allure of expensive and hard-to-find “remedies.”
TCM practitioners aren’t the only ones exploiting animals in the name of human health. Western medicine is full of animal products. Many pills contain ground-up cow bones and insects. Some insulin and blood thinners are also derived from livestock. Your medicine cabinet is a veritable Noah’s Ark of sacrificed animals.
“The hormone replacement Premarin got its name from pregnant mare’s urine, which is the original source,” says Bentley University’s Andrews. “That’s pretty kinky right there.”
Western medicine’s use of animal products, however, is easily distinguishable from China’s plundering of endangered species. There are plenty of bugs and cattle to supply our medical needs well into the future, and the medical efficacy of insulin and heparin are well proven.
Chinese medicine’s obsession with endangered-animal parts frustrates not because it’s foreign but because it is so unnecessary. Dozens of modern medications are proven to treat fever, so there is no need to kill a rhino and grind up its horn. Why is tiger penis valued on the black market when commercially available impotence medications are almost scarily effective? If arthritis were an untreatable malady, things might be different. But as things stand in the $70 billion painkiller industry, dried pangolin scales seem like an unreasonable choice.
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.