Over-the-counter wildlife: the medicinal trade in animals and plants reaches epidemic proportions.
According to TRAFFIC USA, a division of the World Wildlife Fund, the active ingredients of many western medicines are wild animal and plant derivatives. The World Health Organization estimates that 80 percent of the world's population relies on animal and plant-based medicines, and this figure continues to climb as more people purchase herbal and homeopathic remedies.
Wildlife poaching for medicinal remedies is big business, bringing in several billion dollars a year, according to an Environmental Investigation Agency, (EIA) report. At least 430 medicines containing 80 endangered and threatened species have been documented in the U.S. alone. Much of that trade involves cures based on traditional Chinese medicine. It is this market that accounts for the bulk of endangered species trading. According to EIA, at least one third of all patented oriental medicine items available in the U.S. contain ingredients from protected species.
Under serious scrutiny is the trade in bear parts, particularly bear gall bladders. Asiatic black bear gall bladder bile, which is extracted and then dried, is in such short supply that Asian markets have now focused their attention on another species: the North American black bear. Though black bear populations are not severely threatened, they may soon be: The illegal trade in California alone is estimated at $100 million a year.
Lieutenant James Watkins of the California Department of Fish and Game says, "When extracted, the dried granules of bile would be worth about $12,000 on the street." Ounce for ounce, he says bear gall bile is worth more than cocaine.
Several Japanese companies are now marketing synthetic gall as an alternative, and it's slowly gaining favor in South Korea. The medicinal benefits of bear gall are not denied in the west: Actigall, a synthetic form of ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA) - the active ingredient in bear gall - is used to dissolve kidney stones and treat cirrhosis of the liver.
John Perrine of Defenders of Wildlife says, "There's documented evidence of black, grizzly and polar bear poaching, but it's primarily black bears." He cites the growing trend of Chinese medicine practitioners "coming here to witness bear kills or hunt themselves. It's worth their investment to guarantee the organs came from a bear,"
The medicinal trade is also affecting deer species, like white-tailed deer, moose, caribou and elk. According to Chris Robbins, program officer with TRAFFIC USA, a division of the World Wildlilfe Fund, deer antler "is one of the most, if not the most, widely used animal ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine." Deer shed their antlers naturally every year, but poachers usually kill them anyway. Elk are the preferred targets; and some North American elk farms are now collecting shed antlers for export to China, alleviating the pressure on some populations. Antler, which is often boiled and used for treating impotence and blood abnormalities, now trades for up to $200 per pound.
Ancient Greeks and Romans credited seahorses with the ability, to cure baldness and rabies. Now, the seahorse trade exceeds 20 million a year, with some populations declining by 50 percent in the last five years. Such intensive harvesting is taking its toll, for seahorses have low reproductive rates, and are monogamous. More seahorses are now used for the medicinal trade (to treat respiratory ailments, skin diseases and infertility) than are harvested for aquariums and curio trinkets. One Chinese medicine importer notes that 30 percent of seahorses may now be going to factories producing manufactured medicines.
Also flourishing in recent years is the trade in s.hark.cartilage - purported to cure everything from cancerous tumors to rheumatism (see "Who's the Real Killer?" November/December 1995). Blue sharks are most at risk, but virtually every species is pressured.
The Indian rhino, prized for its curative horn, continues to be endangered in its native land, where poachers have developed a new method to bring down their prey: electrocution. While shooting remains the method of choice, high-voltage wires strewn across rhino paths are now being deployed, along with another grisly trap - pits lined with sharpened bamboo stakes. In the 1980s and early 1990s, 700 rhinos were claimed for the horn market. The largest seizure ever of rhino horn occurred last year: 105 horns valued at $4.7 million were found in two London garages. The horns, poached from white and black rhinos (of which only 10,000 total remain) are an especially-prized commodity in the Chinese medicine trade: one alone was valued at $149,000.
Also in danger of extinction, the Siberian tiger continues to be hunted for its bones and penis. Tiger bone is ground into a powder and sold by Chinese medicine practitioners internationally as a cure for a variety of ailments; tiger penis is commonly sold as an aphrodisiac. Between 1991 and 1994, at least 180 tigers were killed for the trade. But increasingly vigilant anti-poaching efforts have given the species a brief reprieve: the tiger population in the Far East has slightly increased in recent years - an estimated 430 now live in the wild.
Yet animals aren't the only casualties in the medicine trade. The North American goldenseal plant is under increasing pressure from intensive harvest for the dietary supplement market. Of the 27 states reporting native patches, 17 consider the plant imperiled. Used as an antiseptic, laxative, and overall detoxicant, goldenseal's wholesale value has increased 600 percent in the last five years. And agarwood trees, found in India and Southeast Asia, are on the verge of extinction according to recent TRAFFIC reports, because of commercial exploitation. Agarwood is used to treat leprosy and respiratory ailments.
The use of wildlife in medicine predates Hippocrates, but it may no longer be sustainable, and researchers are hoping that alternatives and synthetics may provide a satisfactory substitute. CONTACT: TRAFFIC USA, 1250 24th Street NW, Washington, DC 20037/(202)293-4800.