Endangered Species Handbook

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Traditional Medicine Trade

     The Traditional Medicine (TM) trade has been disastrous to many species of wildlife.  Even highly endangered species listed on CITES Appendix I continue to be killed to supply this huge market in southeast Asia and in Chinese communities around the world.  In many cases, enforcement is impossible because endangered animals are sold in forms difficult to detect by Customs officials, such as powder made from ground bones.  The majority of potions sold in this trade have substitutes from non-animal sources, and many do not cure the diseases they claim to, nor do they restore male potency.  Yet the return to a capitalist economy in China and the relative wealth of many Asians has placed such high prices on the heads of rare animals that many species may not survive.  This would mean the end of some of Earth's most magnificent animals.  Among these is the Tiger, whose bones and body parts are highly prized and extremely valuable in the TM trade.  All five species of rhinoceros are teetering on the edge of extinction, with this trade a major cause.  While hundreds of rangers in Asia and Africa have lost their lives protecting Tigers and rhinos, and many government officials and conservationists have struggled fervently to stop the slaughter, bureaucratic indifference and weak enforcement have combined to negate conservation work in many markets.  Internal trade bans on these animals have recently been enacted by China and Taiwan, but enforcement is not strong.  Many of the animal products are intended to increase male potency, and a recent drug marketed in the West, Viagra, may reduce demand for wildlife products such as Tiger and seal penises that have been sold at high prices for this purpose in the past.  In fact, the market for seal sexual organs has already collapsed, resulting in a huge decline in the number of Harp and Hooded Seals killed in Canada, from 280,000 in the late 1990s, primarily for this market, to 91,000 in 2000 (Nickerson 2001).  The price paid for seal has dropped from $25 per animal to a few dollars, if a buyer can be found (Nickerson 2001).  This is good news for some animals, but many others are killed to make products for other purposes, such as to lower fevers, treat rheumatism and heart disease and promote general vigor.  Several organizations and national governments are combating the killing of rare animals for this trade through education programs which provide information on effective alternative medicines. 
     A 19th century victim of the Traditional Medicine trade was Schomburgk's Deer (Cervus schomburgki).  Discovered in eastern Thailand in 1862, no European ever saw the species in the wild (Day 1981).  They were heavily hunted for their large and many-tined antlers that supposedly possessed medicinal and magical properties (Day 1981).  In the mid-19th century, herds of Schomburgk's Deer were seen in swamps, and during floods, they were pursued by boat, marooned on small islands, and speared (Day 1981).  When swamp drainage and irrigation added to their threats, they retreated to bamboo jungles, to which they were not well adapted, until these, too, were cleared for rice fields (Day 1981).  The last known Schomburgk's Deer was shot by a policeman in September 1932 (Day 1981).  The species was considered extinct and officially listed as such by the IUCN (WCMC 1993).  In 1991, a pair of antlers from an unknown type of deer was seen by Laurent Chazee, an agronomist with the United Nations, in a Traditional Medicine shop in a remote part of Laos (Schroering 1995).  Chazee photographed the antlers, which were later identified as coming from a Schomburgk's Deer; the shop owner told him that the animal had been killed the previous year (Schroering 1995).  Forests nearby may shelter more of these deer, and the site is considered by local people to have sacred animal spirits; hunting is prohibited there (Schroering 1995).  A shop in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in February 1994 offered antlers of what were represented as Schomburgk's Deer for $10 a pair (Martin and Phipps 1996).  The seller was obviously unaware of the extraordinary rarity of this deer.  There is still no proof that the species survives, and it has been listed as extinct in 2000 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
     Rhinoceros horn, Tiger bone, ground deer antlers, gallbladders from many species of bears, musk glands from deer, and softshell river turtles are among the thousands of raw materials for Traditional Medicine.  This trade has pushed a host of magnificent species precipitously toward extinction within the past few decades.  Many were already rare from persecution, hunting and habitat loss.  While these products have played an important role in Traditional Medicine for centuries, only within the past decade has the trade spiraled out of control, with a potential market of more than 1 billion people.  A recent survey of Cambodia's markets found the products and body parts of numerous endangered species, including Asiatic Black Bear, Sun Bear, Tiger, Leopard and many rare and endangered deer and wild cattle, being openly sold (Martin and Phipps 1996).  Civets, cat-like mammals, are roasted and their meat sold in the winter to warm blood (Schaller 1993).
     Obviously, all the remaining wild rhinos, Tigers, Musk Deer, bears and other animals used by this trade cannot fill the demands of this enormous market.  This trade has proven the most difficult in the world to control.  Even the threats of international sanctions, strict national laws and CITES Appendix I listing of most of the species involved have not stopped it.
     Snakes by the thousands are kept alive in Asian markets, offered as fever cures and tonics.  When a customer selects one, it is hung up still squirming, and the gallbladder is cut out.  Some are skinned alive, and customers drink the blood.  In Cambodia, great numbers of snakes are sold, and at one market alone 4.4 tons of pythons were sold in 1993; cobras are shipped live by the thousands to Vietnam (Martin and Phipps 1996).  A mongoose is often kept next to the snake cages to keep them angry and lively.  In Taiwan's capital city, Taipei, a vast marketplace called "Snake Alley" sells thousands of live snakes in this fashion.

Primates, Pangolins and Fruit Bats
Dolphins and Seals
Saiga and Deer

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