Since the beginning of time, people have been trying to find medicine for their pains and illnesses. Nowadays, most of the world go to a pharmacy, while in the past times, people used to visit healers and shamans (in many parts of the world, people do so even today). Various plant and animal parts have been used for healing.
It is a big mistake to think that the modern medicine of the Western world is purely synthetic and doesn’t use natural ingredients. However, the bigger problem are traditional medicines. World Health Organization (WHO) has estimated that even in this modern time, 80% of inhabitants of Asia and Africa are dependent on traditional methods of treatment. The best known and most widespread is the Chinese medicine (TCM), but there are more – Ayurveda and Unani in India, Lou Loom in Laos, Vietnamese or Korean medicine, oriental medicine, African medicine…
Traditional Chinese medicine uses around 2,000 plant species and 200 animal species, including endangered ones. However, medicaments don’t serve just as a treatment but also as a prevention. If the medicine is supposed to have a preventive effect, it must be taken for a long time, which increases the consumption of raw materials.
It would be easy to say that traditional medicines are an anachronism and that the only functioning medicine is ours – the Western one. But China has been using its medicine for 4,000 years, thus apparently, at least something works. But what and how? That’s a question… TCM is based on a completely different principle than the Western medicine which is difficult for us to understand. On the other hand, reliable scientific studies on effectiveness of TCM are scarce and opinions on its use differ. The American National Institutes of Health assessed 70 studies – in 41 of them, the real effect of using TCM was inconclusive or too small, while in 29, a possible positive effect was detected. However, scientists have expressed their opinion that the positive results might be caused by a diet change, limitation of smoking, exercise, massages and acupressure, rather than by medicine itself. Nevertheless, this is an opinion of the West. In China and many other Asian countries, it is different – traditional healing is more respected and trusted than the modern medical procedures. China even has two independent ministries – for traditional healing and for Western medicine.
According to Chinese, almost every part of a tiger body, including faeces, has a beneficial effect on the organism. Most demanded are tiger bones HU GU 虎 骨 (Os Tigris), that supposedly heal rheumatism and help an overall strengthening of the organism. The vitreous body of an eye is used to heal epilepsy and malaria, teeth help with rabies, testicles with tuberculosis, etc. Tiger faeces should heal burns and alcoholism.
Recommended daily dose against rheumatism is 3-6 g of ground bones a day, so one patient would need around 2 kg every year. Two tiger skeletons seized at the Prague airport weighed around 12 kg combined. Using easy mathematics, we will come to a conclusion that the remaining global tiger population (3,900 individuals) would theoretically enable a year-long “treatment” of around 11,000 patients. All tigers living in captivity (including tiger farms) would be sufficient for at most 75,000 patients. But there are over 1 billion Chinese…
Saiga is an antelope from the steppes of Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Kalmykia, an animal with an unusual nose. In medicine, saiga horn powder LING YANG JIAO 羚 羊 角 (Cornu Antelopis) is used to mitigate convulsions or cure dizziness and headache. Saiga antelope numbers have been decreasing since the 19th century, main threat being the illegal hunting (originally for skin and meat, now for trophies and medicine). In the past 20 years, the population has plummeted by 95%. The worst year was 2015 when an epidemic of Pasteurella multocida infection broke out in Kazakhstan and 120,000 antelopes died. In 2017, Mongolian saiga antelopes were hit by a plague of small ruminants transmitted from goats and sheep, which resulted in the saiga population size decreasing by one half (to only 5,000 individuals).
Only males have horns in saiga antelopes. Poaching thus alters population structure as males are decimated. A chance for saiga antelopes is in their early sexual maturation and fast reproduction, thanks to which their population can increase again in the wild if there are favourable conditions. Unfortunately, they cannot be bred in captivity where they are very sensitive, almost don’t reproduce and usually don’t survive for a long time.
African cherry Prunus africana belongs among endangered species protected by the CITES convention. Its bark (Pygeum africanum) has prostate healing effects (it inhibits its growth). We can find it in medicaments like Di-Prostan, Prostalex, Prostata Formula etc. that are available in the Czech Republic.
Hoodia gordoni is a desert plant from Kalahari growing for tens of years and weighing tens of kilograms, endangered and protected by CITES.
Bushmen use dried Hoodia powder (ghaap) during long hunts as it suppresses feelings of hunger and tiredness. The effective substance is glycoside P57 (chemical formula C47H74O15). During the Namibia’s war for independence, soldiers of South Africa noticed that Bushmen-trackers have unusual stamina ¬– they were chewing ghaap. Today, Hoodia is added mainly to weight loss products, especially the “hamburger” culture in USA is fascinated by this plant. After typing Hoodia in Google, 2 million links to products with Hoodia appear.
Whales can also be found in Western medicine. Sperm oil is a waxy substance stored in head cavities (spermaceti organ) of the sperm whale (up to 1,900 litres) that helps the whale during diving. In the whaling times, it was used as an illuminant in oil lamps and to support potency. Nowadays, sperm oil can be found also in the Western medicine where it is used as an ointment base (Clotrimazol, Pimafucin, Canesten etc.).
A major problem of the world medicine is the increasing resistance of bacteria against antibiotics. The World Health Organization has published a list of 12 most dangerous, extremely resistant bacteria (among them is, for example, golden staph).
A scientific study conducted in Australia has revealed that some proteins in crocodile blood kill bacteria (including the golden staph) and liquidate even the HIV virus. Crocodile immune system is much stronger than the human system, and it can successfully defend itself from massive infections.
Similar situation is in the case of Komodo dragons. Dragons’ saliva contains tens of strains of pathogenic bacteria which, however, don’t harm the dragons. They can also heal very serious injuries contaminated by inflammation. Scientists from the George Mason University in Virginia found in Komodo dragon blood 48 specific proteins that kill bacteria, out of which 8 they were able to synthetize. These proteins act even against Pseudomonas aeruginosus and the golden staph (both of these bacteria are on the World Health Organization’s list).
Won’t some species eventually save our civilization?
Belief in effect of traditional medicine made of wild animals and plants is deeply rooted in many people, especially in Asia, and it is a question whether we can expect any changes soon. Prohibitions are difficult to enforce and the trade is still blooming. At a first glance, the situation might seem to be easily solved by farm breeding or growing on plantations but it is showing that in fact, this is not a solution.
Since 1985, breeding farms have been established in China to supply pharmaceutical companies with products from more than 30 animal species. Among them are controversial bear or tiger farms, other facilities breed Siberian musk deer, leopards, civets, flying squirrels, snakes or turtles. Producers of many products state that they use only animals from captivity or plants grown artificially. But…
The first serious problem are conditions of breeding in these facilities and the fact that animals are perceived as consumer goods. Another problem is that data on farms and plantations are not trustworthy. A study has shown that over 80% of plant material used for production of certain TCM medicaments were taken from the wild, although the producer stated that they come from plantations.
There is also an effort to support using substitutes from livestock, which should have similar effect as products from wild animals (one of the priorities of the Chinese five-year science and technology development plan is also a research in this field). Unfortunately, such cheaper medicaments are bought primarily by poor Chinese, whereas wealthier people prefer expensive, luxurious materials from the wild.
Why is there an interest in specimens from the wild if there is an alternative from a farm, plantation or livestock? The answer is easy – because everybody believes that a natural material is better. It is also more expensive but there is the so-called “Ferrari effect” – “by buying expensive things, I show everybody that I can afford it”! However, this belief probably has a real basis – scientific analyses conducted in Germany have proven that plants from the wild contain more effective substances (it might be similar in animals). Farms and plantations can thus produce something like “medicine for poor” but they don’t solve the situation of endangered species in general.
From the long-term point of view, finding substitutes for endangered species in medicine seems to be a reasonable solution. Substitutes must be available and functional. In many cases, such alternatives already exist. The question is whether people want to use them, are aware of them and trust in their effect. Apart from a scientific progress, education and raising awareness targeted primarily on younger generations (older ones are not easy to change) is necessary. Not only is there this very difficult task to change thinking of more than a billion people, but there is also the issue of the pharmaceutical industry which has absolutely no intentions to give up its profits. In the case of China, a quantification was conducted saying that to compensate for the suspended capital and loss of traders, about 2 billion yuan (about 230 million USD) a year would be needed. It is definitely a long time run...
Siberian musk deer
Musk deer of the genus Moschus is a small deer from the Far East. Males have a musk gland in their scrotum, excretion of which contains a strongly aromatic substance – musk.
Components of this substance are similar to human pheromones which is why people like the smell of musk and why it works as an aphrodisiac. Musk also fixes other smells which is why it was used in perfumes (women certainly know perfumes named Musk).
In TCM, musk is called SHE XIANG 麝 香 (Secretio Moschus moschiferi), it is used also in Ayurveda, and it is one of the most valuable animal raw materials. Price for 1 kg is around 45,000 USD. Unfortunately, musk deer males have only 25-50 g of musk in their glands which they start to produce at the age of 3 years. To obtain 1 kg of musk, up to 50 musk deer must be killed. Siberian musk deer are shot or captured in traps and snares. Females and young males don’t have musk and so they are killed unnecessarily. Musk could be obtained from animals artificially but it is not easy and of course, poachers don’t do that in the wild.
Many products contain ingredients from endangered species – TCM uses around 200 protected plant species and 20 protected animal species. But how to know that a pill contains a tiger? According to the CITES convention and EU law definitions, it is sufficient if the species is stated in the list of ingredients, and no analysis is needed to prove it. But what if it is in Chinese? Unfortunately, control authorities must know at least some basic Chinese characters and pharmaceutical names…
Products of TCM can consist of just one raw material, such as roots, leaves, horns, bones, gallbladder, etc. These ingredients are used raw, dried, smoked or as infusions. In this category, counterfeits are the most common (for example deer penises issued as tiger penises). Healing mixes made of more species are also prepared, and these are mixed specially for each patient according to a TCM doctor’s prescription. The highest category is the so-called patent medicine which are medicaments of an exact composition published in the Chinese book of patent medicine. A patent is granted by Chinese medical authorities and its number on a package guarantees that exact ingredients in an exact ratio were used. These are usually capsules, pills, powders or tonics. Patent medicine is not usually adulterated as Asians are very superstitious, but recipes can be altered in some way (instead of protected species, substitutes are used).
Marmot fat is a natural corticoid with anti-inflammatory effects. In Alpes, it is called “oil of life” because before antibiotics were invented, it was the only chance for surviving pneumonia. Even today, marmots are illegally hunted for their fat which is added to medicine healing rheuma, aching joints, eczema, bronchi. Tatra National Park has recorded increase in marmot poaching, especially in autumn and in winter when marmots have a lot of fat stored in their bodies. From one marmot, up to 2 litres of fat can be obtained (on black market, 1 litre is sold for 200 EUR). Marmots are hunted with submachine guns or with gas. Trapping marmots in iron snares still occur in Mongolia where, unfortunately, snow leopards often get accidentally trapped in snares, too.
Shark liver oil is used to strengthen immunity and as a compound of ointments on poorly healing wounds. It is also believed to have anti-cancer effects (this belief probably stems only from the fact that sharks don’t have cancer, but the evidence is missing). Shark cartilage is added to medicaments used to cure joints.
Sometimes, using certain animals and plants in medicine is an unnecessity which we should try get rid of. In other cases, the situation is not that clear. This is the case of the American horseshoe crab. Horseshoe crab is a sea arthropod reminding of a trilobite. It has survived hundreds of millions of years in an unchanged form, therefore it is a so-called “living fossil”.
Its extraordinary characteristic is its blue blood which is caused by the presence of copper instead of iron. Its blood contains a substance called coagulogen which can detect a presence of bacteria, and when it finds them, it surrounds them with a clot. It is a fantastic ability which is used in pharmacologic industry worldwide. LAL (Limulus amebocyte lysate) test detects bacterial contaminations and guarantees sterility of medicine, vaccination substances, surgery implants etc. Currently, coagulogen is unreplaceable – it cannot be made synthetically. Unfortunately, horseshoe crabs are the only natural source. Every year, around half a million horseshoe crabs are caught and killed for their blue blood.
What endangered animals are used the most in TCM? Here is a Top list:
Bear gallbladder and bear bile XIONG DAN 熊 胆 (Fel Ursi, in Vietnamese Mật gấu) are other favourite raw materials. Brown bear, Asian black bear, Sloth bear, Malayan sun bear and American black bear are used. Fortunately, panda bear is not desirable for traditional Chinese medicine (although panda bears are threatened by Western collectors’ demand for rare furs). More about bears here.
Pangolin is currently the most trafficked animal in the world. Pangolin scale powder CHUAN SHAN JIA 穿山甲 (Squama Manitis) is used in Chinese, Korean and African medicine (Yorubic). More about pangolins here.
Traditional medicine uses rhino horn powder XI NIU JIAO 犀角 (Cornu Rhinoceri). According to ancient medical prescriptions, it cures diseases of heart, liver and stomach, it is used against fever, consciousness loss, blood spitting… However, horn is never used as an aphrodisiac, as is sometimes offensively claimed by Western media. Science has proven only some weak anti-pyretic effects (which are roughly half compared to Acylpyrin). Chinese value Asian rhinos the most by but as they are rare, a demand is for horns from Africa. A cheap substitute with a significantly smaller effect is allegedly provided by buffalos (buffalo is kind of an Asian rhino for the poor).
Unfortunately, horns of saiga antelope are considered a quality alternative., also due to a WWF campaign which tried to avert danger from rhinos in 90s by recommending saiga antelopes as a substitute for rhino horns (with the explanation that saiga antelopes are numerous…). Not all conservation efforts are always thoughtful. More about rhinos here.
Dried sea horse powder HAI MA 海 馬 (Hippocampus) is supposed to serve as a cure for kidney diseases, impotence, incontinence, and it allegedly improves brain functioning during old people dementia. Over 90 medicaments from the field of traditional medicine are based on sea horses. This means, over 20 million sea horses are killed every year, of which around 500 tons of medicine are derived. Dried sea horses can be found virtually in every pharmacy in Asia.
Part of the horses come from breeding hatcheries but a lot of them are illegally hunted. Local fishermen catch sea horses with trawls or collect them on coral reefs (see for example Marine Conservation Cambodia). One sea horse is sold for around 2.5 USD.
Chinese pond turtle
Turtle plastron GUI BAN 龜 板 (Plastrum Testudinis), a part of the shell covering the abdominal side of the turtle body, is a raw material frequently used in TCM. Supposedly, it improves excessive night sweating and mitigates nausea, menstruation, anxiety and insomnia.
In the stomach of mammals, a particular body is sometimes formed from unprocessed food residues – bezoar. It can be of various size and hardness, sometimes it can be as hard as stone. Since the Middle Ages, it has been believed to have magical power and an ability to neutralize poisons (remember Harry Potter). Bezoars used to be set in gold and jewellery (bezoar in gold was a part of Crown Jewels of Queen Elizabeth II). In TCM, cow bezoar is used but much more valuable is monkey bezoar (used also in African medicine).
Monkey bezoar is called “monkey pearls” – HOU ZAO 侯 枣 (Calculus Macacae). Quite apparently, it cannot be taken out of a body without killing the animal. Chinese traders offer bezoar for high prices. A Czech primatologist personally recorded that after a Chinese trafficker moved to a certain part of Borneo, most monkeys in the surroundings disappeared within 3 months. Monkey bones (to make broth) and brains are also used. For instance, in Thailand, a special stimulating drink is offered – alcohol with monkey brain (the brain is supposed to work for up to 6 weeks, then it needs to be replaced with a fresh one).
Donkey gelatine E-JIAO 阿胶 (Colla Corii Asini) is made of donkey skins. The main consumer is China where it serves as a medicine for anemia and menopause, it is sold as a drink/aperitif with nuts and seeds. Annual production of e-jiao in China is 5,000 tons (4 million donkey skins). In 90s, around 11 million donkeys were kept in China, while in 2013, it was only 6 million. There are still less donkeys in China, so traders have focused their attention on Africa. They started buying donkeys in Africa where price for a donkey has increased (5fold in South Africa, i.e. to 2,000 ZAR). But villagers are not eager to to sell their donkeys as they mean livelihood to them and help them during work. Therefore, gangs were created to steal donkeys from villagers. Thousands of donkeys are stolen and killed for their skins. Annual turnover of the illegal trade is several million dollars just in South Africa. Donkey skins go to China – in 2016, a shipment of 5,000 smuggled donkey skins was seized. Villagers are losing sources of their livelihood and don’t have money to buy a new donkey as it is too expensive. Some countries still export donkey skins legally (Botswana, Kenya, Namibia), others have already realized that this is a big problem and banned the export (South Africa, Mali, Senegal, Niger, Burkina Faso).
In Africa, traditional medicine uses vultures, too. Vulture brain and eyes are supposed to improve sight and cure eye diseases. Allegedly, they also strengthen inner sight needed for divination of future. In the past 30 years, vulture populations have dramatically decreased in Asia and Africa but rather than because of hunting for brain and eyes it was due to a drug called Diclofenac. This anti-inflammatory drug is used for livestock but if a dead cow treated with Diclofenac is eaten by vultures, this drug blocks their kidneys and vultures die. This is how vultures almost disappeared in India which led to a massive overpopulation of feral dog packs and spread of rabies. Nowadays, Diclofenac is banned in Asia but is still used in Europe – even for people, for example, to cure arthritis etc.
In Africa, vultures are also still poisoned with carbofuran – poachers put carbofuran into the carcasses of poached elephants and rhinos so that the circling vultures don’t guide rangers to the site.
Many and many more animals are in some way used in traditional medicines – python fat, blood and bile, porcupine intestines, squirrel faeces, praying mantis cocoons, hippo or elephant fat, elephant faeces, flying fox heart, otter gallbladder, leeches, dried cobra poison, ground deer antlers and many other animal parts are used… Especially great power is attributed to penises – penises of otters, crocodiles, tigers, deer, sea lions are used as well… Allegedly, the best means of curing impotence is a seal penis (Penis otariae), although no effects have been scientifically proven.
It is interesting that alternative ways of treatment in Western countries are often used by vegetarians, vegans etc. If these people knew what they consume in their TCM tea or pills, they would probably be horrified…
Plants do not have a story like animals in terms of illegal trade. However, here are some interesting cases:
Costus Saussurea costus
Dried costus root MU XIANG 木香 (Radix Aucklandiae) contains essential oils and resins. It supposedly helps cure asthma, cramps, stomach problems, skin eczema etc. It serves also as a censer – it should have a sensual scent with aphrodisiac effects. Costus is a species under the risk of extinction and is listed in CITES Appendix I, in spite of which it is still an ingredient of many products of Chinese and Indian medicine. Chinese claim that the plants they use are grown on plantations, but it is not very convincing. Preparations with costus are often seized at the Vaclav Havel Airport Prague. Some producers have begun to use substitutes that are not protected, such as Vladimiria souliei or plants of the genus Inula. However, Inula species are poisonous and using Vladimiria is prohibited in the Czech Republic. State Institute for Drug Control has listed it among prohibited plants as it contains the aristolochic acid that has carcinogenic and nephrotoxic effects. So how can such medicaments heal?
Aquilaria – agar wood
Trees of the genus Aquilaria that are attacked by a fungi Phialophora parasitica, defend themselves by producing aromatic resin called agarwood CHEN XIANG 沉 香 (Lignum Aquilariae). It is the most expensive plant material in the world. It is used in aromatic oils, incenses, perfumes and also in medicine. Agarwood cures hepatitis, cirrhosis, gastric ulcers, hiccup and is proven to have a strong antibiotic effect against typhus, tuberculosis and diarrhea.
During religious ceremonies and burning on funerals pyres, agarwood was used as a censer and for body embalming. It was mentioned already in the New Testament (Gospel of St. John, 19:39, 12:35) - after Christ was crucified, his body was covered with agarwood oil... Naturally, around 20% of trees are attacked by the fungi but plantations with artificially attacked trees are being established (for example in Vietnam).
VMany orchid species are used in medicine, including those well-known house orchids of the genus Dendrobium.
Interesting are orchids of the genus Orchis, for example Early purple orchid Orchis mascula. These orchids have relatively big tubers containing starch powder which is used in the Middle East for making a tea called sahlep, Salabmisri in Ayurveda. Supposedly, it has aphrodisiac effects, helps against influenza and stimulates energy.
However, sceptics claim that it is based just on the shape of the orchid tubers ¬– Early purple orchid has tubers that look like testicles – from here the connection with potency…
Sahlep is imported to Europe usually from Turkey and Egypt but the real orchid starch is often replaced or adulterated with corn starch. Visitors of tea houses enjoying a special sahlep tea (and paying high price for it) thus often drink just a common corn…
Popularity of this traditional medicine is not diminishing, but on the contrary, it is growing. TCM centres are being established at a high speed – in China, their number has doubled in the past 12 years, with around half a million TCM doctors operating there, and since 2011, the Drug Control Authority has approved 60 thousand new medicaments for sale.
Trade in TCM brings China a great profit, thus political promotion of its use has increased. Since 2012 in China, according to a law, TCM is at the same level as Western medicine. Chinese politicians including the president Xi Jinping himself support its use.
President Xi calls TCM a “jewel of Chinese traditional science” that is now experiencing its golden age. Allegedly, doctors who have adopted Western medical practice should be now encouraged, or even forced, to leave their positions and study TCM. Government performs recruitments and “teaching” of doctors. The official reasons are savings as well – they say TCM therapy has lower expenses.
In the past decades, use of TCM has increased in Western countries as well – first it was due to the growth of Chinese community (Chinatowns), but then the demand of “non-Asians” gradually increased because of their interest in healthy lifestyle and alternative medical methods. According to a research, 30-50% inhabitants of Western countries use modern medicine along with TCM (only few people, however, switch to TCM alone) and 70% of users have non-Asian origin. Around 12-15,000 TCM doctors have their offices in Europe, there are even TCM hospitals… Unfortunately, it is a really huge business – in 2016, TCM products worth more than 3.42 billion dollars were exported from Asia. The biggest exporters are China and India and the goods most often go to Europe and USA. A lot of shipments are imported legally with all the needed documents but many of them (especially those containing very rare species) are smuggled. The most frequent place of entrance in EU is the Netherlands where up to 400 illegal shipments are seized every year.
Expansion of Chinese medicine might be devastating for endangered species. Animals and plants used for preparation of TCM mixtures must be obtained somewhere, i.e. hunted or collected (more information on farm breeding and plantations further). As long as only local people processed and used them, it usually did not have devastating consequences. However, as consumption increases and TCM products are imported to the whole world, the situation gets worse. At the Vaclav Havel Airport Prague, imports of medicine containing protected species are absolutely common. Many passengers of Asian origin (in the Czech Republic, they are usually from Vietnam) bring products from their mother land which they trust much more than those in the Czech Republic. They don’t often know that these products contain for example a bear bile or saiga horn powder, or they don’t want to know or don’t care. They virtually never have the needed permits and the products are thus seized.
Europeans or Americans often look at Chinese with contempt, condemning them for the use of animals and plants in traditional medicine. The fact is that the Western medicine uses them too, although less, and usually it doesn’t brag about it. Anonymous colourful pills don’t say anything about their content (on the contrary, Chinese medicaments usually have a picture on the package). Here are some examples:
Even leeches have been used – and not just for the former procedure of “applying leeches”, but leech extracts are nowadays used in anti-aging creams and hemorrhoid ointments. There are more examples of Western medicine using endangered animal and plant species.
So, can we condemn Asia for the same?
Musk is most aromatic in the spring, when it has form of a black and brown sticky matter. During the rest of the year, it is black and grainy (grains can be of the size of millet or peas). Musk is an ingredient of more than 300 patented recipes of TCM, usually of anti-rheumatic products or cardiac medicaments. Due to the price, medicaments are often packed into special luxurious wax balls (each ball contains one pill).
During the cultural revolution, tigers in China were persecuted as pests and killed, so the pharmaceutical industry had enough raw materials. Mao Ce-Tung led a campaign against tigers and the communist party paid rewards for every tiger skin. The last time South China tiger was spotted in the wild was in 90s. After China wiped out its tigers, smuggling from Russia, India and other neighbouring countries started to increase. As tigers are rare in the recent years, leopard (BAO GU 豹 骨) or lion bones are used as substitutes. More about tigers here.
Although a donkey is not a protected species, it is becoming endangered. It is an interesting example of how quickly a demand can shake with numbers of certain animals and what the trade can cause.