The Destruction of Wildlife for Traditional Chinese Medicine

By Richard Ellis

Island Press. 294 pp. $26.95

Traditional Chinese medicine, whose roots stretch back thousands of years, still powerfully influences the health beliefs of people in China and elsewhere. The most ancient written description of traditional medical practices, dating from 2600 B.C., dealt with acupuncture (or a related technique, moxibustion) and dietary regimens. By around A.D. 200, the Chinese pharmacopeia had expanded to include treatments derived from plants and animals. And in 1597, when Li Shih-chen completed the "Pen Ts'ao Kang Mu," the classic text of traditional Chinese remedies, he listed 1,892 drugs, of which 400 came from animals. The wild creatures used as sources included tigers, lions, leopards, elephants, rhinoceroses, bears, deer, wolves, otters and sea horses.

In our own time, the medicinal market in wild-animal body parts may seal the doom of entire species, argues environmental writer Richard Ellis in this exhaustively researched book. Ellis makes a convincing case that persistent belief in the curative powers of such substances as tiger bone and rhinoceros horn is the major force driving these animals inexorably toward extinction. Even though Western medicines are marketed worldwide and often are cheaper and scientifically proven effective, traditional practices combine with human population growth to fuel a rising demand for the highly profitable animal products. In the case of some endangered species, the market for traditional remedies has become the major motivation for poachers.

Powdered rhino horn, for example, was traditionally considered an antidote to poisons, a cure for fever, a liver tonic and a treatment for convulsions, dysentery, typhoid, headache, arthritis, melancholia, hemorrhage and even smallpox. Although a 1973 treaty banned the international trade in rhino horn, large quantities continue to be traded illegally, both for their use as medicine and as handles for daggers made in Yemen. The retail price of powdered rhino horn in East Asia has reached as high as $20,000 to $30,000 per kilo. As Ellis notes, "Of the five living species of rhinoceros, three in Asia and two in Africa, all are threatened by the relentless demands of traditional Chinese medicine."

Conducting a reliable census of a wild-animal species is a formidable task -- especially when, like the Indian tiger, the species lives in thick forests and mangrove swamps -- and Ellis's book is weighed down by confusing population estimates for various species, drawn from a bewildering variety of sources. (At one point, he states, "Today in Texas there are said to be four thousand pet tigers, more perhaps than the numbers that roam free in India" -- a claim that I found hard to swallow.) Nevertheless, the cumulative evidence linking the market in traditional medicines with widespread poaching is compelling.

What the book lacks is a cogent explanation for why traditional remedies remain so popular, and a clear plan for addressing the problem. I found myself wishing that Ellis had interviewed some modern-day consumers of traditional Chinese medicines about their reasons for taking them. For instance, except for short sections of the final chapter, he largely ducks the fascinating question of whether some of these treatments might actually work. Some researchers have addressed this issue. Tiger bone, for example, does not differ in composition from other animal bones. Yet although tiger penis bone soup is a traditional Asian remedy for impotence, a study found it was no more effective than fake Viagra tablets.

Ellis briefly describes contradictory scientific findings on rhino horn, with some studies suggesting that it has "no effect whatsoever on the human body," and some (in rats) indicating that it might be effective in lowering fever. Other research on laboratory rats suggests that ursodeoxycholic acid, derived from the bile of bears, might be effective in reducing brain damage in stroke and perhaps other neurological disorders. It seems likely that negative findings from scientific testing of traditional remedies could be used to help reduce their popularity, while positive findings might provide clues to synthetic drug development. However, Ellis seems to fear that any hint that such treatments might be effective would only enhance demand for the animal-derived products.

Targeted educational efforts to increase public awareness of endangered species appear to be the most promising strategy for reducing the killing of animals to make traditional remedies. Ellis cites the encouraging findings of a 2004 study by Traffic North America, which monitors trade in wildlife products, that compared the inventories of traditional Chinese medicine outlets in San Francisco and New York. In San Francisco, shopkeepers knew far more about laws protecting species and were correspondingly less likely to stock products from such animals: For example, only 3 percent of San Francisco shops surveyed offered medicines labeled as containing tiger, compared with 41 percent of New York shops. For those ready to do battle to save endangered species, Ellis's book provides plenty of factual ammunition. Alas, his writing style is as dry as powdered rhino horn.