27. May, 2017

Traditional Chinese Medicine and its role in the extinction of rare animal species

Killing rare animals that live in the wild has become a lucrative trade that cleverly responds to primitive instincts as well as ancient traditions. It could  imply selling permits to rich Americans for hunting lions, elephants or rhino's on an African safari, or killing endangered species and trading their organs to Asian countries. A key role here is played by Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). TCM is based on the belief in the curing power of acupuncture and herbs, as well as dried organs of rare animals.

Left: Upper panel: Dried  totoaba swim bladders for sale at Asian market. Lower panel: the Vaquita, a small porpoise often killed as bycatch in the gillnets

But to date, unbiased scientific studies* have not been able to confirm its medical claims. For example, rhino horn contains mainly keratine, meaning that eating your finger nails would probably be equally effective. Unfortunately, a dangerous spin-of this old cultural tradition is the growing illegal smuggle on the black markets that still make huge profits in Asian countries.

Threathened species Examples of products used for medical or culinary purposes are powdered rhinoceros horn, shark fins and  the pangolin. The disastrous effects of shark finning on the shark population have been extensively described in various media. The pangolin is a small, scaly, insect-eating mammal been plucked from the wild across Asia and Africa for consumption almost exclusively in China, where their scales are used to treat everything from rheumatoid arthritis to inflammation.  But the  list of products contains  much more examples  of dubious cures based on body parts from endangered wild animals. A bizarre  example  is  Mong La, in northernmost Burma (officially now called Myanmar)  where tiger penis is served as a special expensive dish on the menu. Tiger penis is also avalaible in Guolizhuang – Beijing’ Famous Penis Restaurant that serves cooked yak penis or sheep gonads. Tiger penis has to be ordered months in advance. Some conservationists  fostered the hope that Viagra would reduce the poaching of  animals  of which  body parts are  used as aphrodisiacs. Alas,  not  so in Asian countries.

One of the reasons of the booming wildlife trade is China’s growing industry with its rapid expansion of a middle class. This  raised  hundreds of millions  of Chinese from poverty up into the middle class, giving them now access to exclusive culinary or ‘healing’ medical products. But it also stimulated a new highly profitable but less riskful illegal market for former drug traffickers.

Marine species: the totoaba and vaquita. An  example of a marine species  that is on the verge of  extinction due to Chinese  trade is the totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi). It is the largest member of the family Sciaenidae that is endemic  in the upper Gulf of California.  The fish is caught by pirate Mexican fishermen with their gillnets. The totoaba, a highly endangered species, is caught for its swim bladders which are smuggled to China for sale on the black market.  Here the swim bladders are sold  at an average price of $20,000 per kilogram (see picture upper panel). The dried bladders  were previously used by wealthy Chinese that used such bladders or “fish maws,” to make soups thought to smooth the discomfort of pregnancy and cure joint pain.  Signs of the totoaba slaughter  began showing up in the upper Gulf of California around 2011.  A circular drumlike device that is set to the side of the motorized vessels draws in the nylon nets much faster, thereby revolutionizing the size of the catch and the fishing industry.

The totaoaba however, wasn’t the only victim of the Chinese bladder boom.  So was the vaquita (Phocoena sinus), a rare species of porpoise about 1.5 m long and endemic to the northern part of the Gulf of California. The word vaquita is Spanish for "little cow". It is distinguishable by the dark rings surrounding their eyes (see picture lower panel), patches on their lips, and a line that extends from their dorsal fins to their mouths. Their backs are a dark grey that fades to white undersides. According to recent IUCN report  only  less than 300 are left in the northern Gulf of California today. Although it is not a target for fisherman, its population decrease is largely attributed to bycatch from the  nylon gillnet fishery used for shrimps as well as the (illegal) totoaba for the Chinese trade. These gillnets  are particularly treacherous because their mesh is about the same size as a vaquita’s head and are  hardly visible underwater. This type of fishing is now counteracted  by  the  Mexican government, that launched a two-year ban on the use of gillnet fishing in the area.  

Sources  and links

*Unbiased in this context means: with no national or cultural interest favoring studies with a positive outcome. This excludes a.o. the Journal of Chinese Medicine, but not the bona fide  Chinese Journal of Medicine.