Sun Simiao was a titanic figure in the world of traditional Chinese medicine. Born in the late 6th century during the Tang Dynasty and boasting a remarkable 101 year lifespan, he was revered in China — much like the Greek physician Hippocrates was among practitioners of Western medicine. Sun produced books that serve as some of the fundamental writings on traditional Chinese medicine, like the one that roughly translates as Essential Formulas for Emergencies Worth a Thousand Pieces of Gold.
Despite the widespread adoption of Western medicine throughout China today, the traditional methodology Sun practiced still serves as an important practice for many people in China and elsewhere, sometimes helping in instances where modern treatments fall short.
But some of the ingredients for cures listed by Sun, or later adopted by physicians of traditional Chinese medicine, have brought practitioners into conflict with the wildlife conservation community. Demand for products like horns has driven species like the western black rhino to extinction, while species of pangolins have become the most trafficked animal in the world due to demand for their scales and meat. Even a once common lizard species in Southeast Asia, the tokay gecko, is being harvested in such large numbers for use in medicine that they are disappearing from some areas.
Meanwhile, demand for tiger parts have led to poaching across their range, and are even affecting leopards when used as substitute ingredients. “What we’re heading for is extinction in the wild,” says Judith Mills, author of the book Blood of the Tiger, which details the struggle to conserve the big cats in face of massive demand.
While many are quick to point the blame at the practice of traditional Chinese medicine in general, the reality is not quite as simple. Some practitioners say the fault lies in misinterpretations of Sun’s original texts, as well as the bad faith marketing efforts made by wildlife parts suppliers and controversial tiger farms.
A Captive Market
In the 1980s, the supply of wild tigers (and other animals like bears, pangolins and rhinos) whose parts are used in traditional medicine were becoming scarce. “China started running short on their own national supply of these animals,” Mills says.
Facing this decline, government and private profiteers in China established tiger farms to assuage the demand for wild animal parts both nationally and abroad. The idea was that supplying legally farmed parts would decrease the demand for wild-derived products supplied by poachers.
But for a variety of reasons, Mills says, the plan didn’t exactly work as intended. For starters, the widespread availability of legal parts only increased demand, then which trickled down to the black market portions of the market.
Some people think that these wild-caught parts are actually more effective as medicine, according to surveys on five major cities in China conducted by Mahendra Shrestha, program director of the Tiger Conservation Partnership at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, and others. “Various sources showed that there was still a huge demand on the wild population because people prefer products from the wild rather than the captive,” he says.
In addition, as the average wage of the Chinese citizen has gone up, more people can afford the types of products that were formerly only available to the elite. This increase in demand has also boosted the call for wildlife products that can’t be farmed, like those from pangolins or rhinos.
Poaching occurs in many different parts of the world, for a variety of reasons. Elephant ivory is valued as a luxury material, for example, while other animals may be prized for their bushmeat. Taken together, this practice presents severe challenges for conservationists. But the demand for traditional Chinese medicine is often driven by people concerned with their loved ones' health and livelihood. When children suffer from conditions that aren’t curable by Western medicine, desperate parents will do anything for potential solutions.
Some traditional medicine practitioners say these uses are misguided in the first place, though. Lixing Lao, a professor and president of the Virginia University of Integrative Medicine, prefers to take guidance from the original texts written by Sun Simiao nearly 1,500 years ago. Sun wrote that animal parts can sometimes be used to save lives — with the caveat that these parts should only come from animals that died from natural causes.
“If you kill another life to save our life, this is against the principal of Chinese medicine practice,” Lao says, adding that later on in his career, Sun disavowed using animal parts altogether. Many of Sun’s cures for ailments have multiple options listed as ingredients. Botanical products can often achieve the same function, so it’s not necessary to turn to rhino horns or tiger bones. “Chinese medicine has been practiced for many years, but if you look at the literature, animal parts make up a small part of it,” Lao says.
In other cases, Lao says, commercial operations twist the original recipes for profit, marketing new types of products as substitutes to wealthy people looking for miracle cures. “They exaggerate lots of things; this makes things worse,” he says. Traditional texts might have recommended the use of scales from Chinese pangolin species in some cases. But now that these animals are nearly extinct in the wild, suppliers are claiming that African pangolin species’ scales have the same functions. In some cases, marketers even promote the consumption of pangolin meat for health purposes, when this was never a part of traditional medicine. “The African species of pangolin is different than the Chinese, but they don’t care,” Lao says.
Shrestha adds that prices have become so high that leopard and even lion parts are now sometimes substituted for tiger bones. This has contributed to a huge increase in demand, knocking out populations of Indochinese leopards in Southeast Asia, for example.
Solutions From Within
Mills sees the situation as particularly bleak given the amount of money involved, and the desperation of those looking for potential treatments. “We’re talking about a lot of money here, and also national pride,” she says.
Some Westerners may scoff at the idea that any of these practices work in the first place, but this is also inaccurate — some traditional cures do work. Bear bile works as a treatment for some liver diseases, for example, though synthetic substitutes for these wildlife products are available.
But the practice of Western medicine can also pose a threat to certain types of wildlife. Horseshoe crabs, for example, are harvested in great numbers in Delaware Bay for a critical ingredient they contain that is used widely in a number of medicines, including COVID-19 vaccines. These crabs are in decline — due in part to this harvest — and their loss impacts a whole swath of migrating birds that feed on crab eggs, like red knots.
And both Lao and Mills both say that there's hope in China's younger generation, many of whom shows signs of increasing awareness and concern for conservation issues. Lao has worked with some ingredient suppliers that have made pledges not to use illegal products from poachers.
Lishu Li, who works with the Wildlife Conservation Society’s China program, says the younger, educated demographic in China is definitely more concerned about these issues. But gaps remain between popular perception and actual decision-making. She says that if product manufacturers were forced to display where ingredients come from, the resulting transparency could help reduce the demand for wildlife parts. “Sometimes, a lot of consumers and medical practitioners are not aware that those animal parts are from endangered species, or lack awareness [that the endangered status] of these species are linked to their medical use,” Li says.
She also notes that the government has put a lot of attention recently on ecological protection — not only in China, but abroad, as well. The government has also increased protections for some species, like pangolins and tokay geckos. But overall, she says, conservation efforts must still face an overall lack of awareness among the general public. Ultimately, Li says that conservationists and traditional medicine practitioners would do better to work together: “Too much controversial finger-pointing, too few solutions proposed.”