Does Protecting Endangered Rhinos Conflict With Traditional Chinese Medicine?


10 critically endangered black rhinos were killed in South Africa in 2010. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

A report released in the first weeks of 2011 announced that in the previous year a record number of endangered rhinoceros had been killed by poachers—333 in 2010 compared to just 133 in 2009. The next day, South African police cornered a band of poachers and—after a protracted firefight—shot and killed five of them.

The two events illustrate the status of the rhino across its range. A rapid increase of poaching in Sub-Saharan Africa—in spite of expanded efforts of conservation police in many afflicted countries—has been fueled by a growing demand for rhinoceros horn on the medicinal black markets of East and South East Asia. Only by curbing this demand, conservationists say, can the rhinos truly be protected.

But is this approach to conservation an attack on traditional medicine and time-honored cultural practices?Some practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) believe that efforts to end the international trade of rhinoceros horn are, indeed, an affront to their culture. Limiting the use of rhino horn—which is commonly prescribed to treat fever, among other ailments, but never as an aphrodisiac—others say, prevents patients from receiving the treatment they need to get healthy or even survive.

"I agree that all herbalists have duties to protect the endangered animals," one Hong Kong TCM trader told New Scientist, "however, we are equally obliged to use these antidotes to cure the patients. In my opinion, human lives are much more important than those of the animals."

A Perception of Potency

A TCM pharmacy in Hong Kong. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

The problematic use of endangered species in TCM is not new. For centuries, traditional medicas and pharmacopoeias have noted the danger of exploiting rare antidotes—at the risk they may become lost to medicine—and provided more common alternatives.

In the case of rhinoceros horn, alternatives including buffalo horn have been documented since as early as the sixth century.

Unfortunately, these alternatives are often thought of as lesser equivalents. The common perception is that products from the rare original source is the most potent and that alternatives—whether from other animals, farm-raised animals, or, worse of all, synthetic sources—are not as effective as cures.

This understanding—which is not supported by the Chinese Government or the TCM establishment—continues to drive the black market in wild-caught animal products including, of course, the horns of critically endangered rhinoceros.

The Medical Reality

Many treatments fully embraced by Western Medicine have natural roots. Indeed, several now common treatments—notably Artemisin as a treatment for malaria and Ephedrine for asthma—were taken from Traditional Chinese Medicine, where they have been used for centuries.

Rhinoceros horn, however, is not one of these medicines. Studies conducted in 1983 and 2008 at the Zoological Society of London both concluded that rhino horn has no therapeutic value.

A study conducted at Chinese University in Hong Kong in 1990 looked specifically at rhino horn's efficacy as a fever reducer. Researchers found that in extremely large doses, rhino horn could slightly lower fever in mice. As the concentrations were reduced, however, the ground horn quickly lost its power and, by the time it reached levels commonly prescribed, it had no impact whatsoever.

Understanding TCM

These findings, of course, do not invalidate the entire practice of Traditional Chinese Medicine. In fact, this view of TCM—common among Western onlookers—as a monolithic and unchanging practice is one of the key misunderstandings muddying the debate over the use of endangered animal products.

The earliest documentation of TCM practices is found in Shang Dynasty hieroglyphics dating back to 1600-1100 BC. From those early notations it was modified and refined extensively, most notably between 300 - 100 BC and around 200 AD.

In modern history, TCM branched with followers of the Jingfang school relying on documents from the Han Dynasty, and practitioners of the Wenbing school using more recent texts from the Ming and Qing Dynasties. The history of TCM, clearly, is long and its ability to change and adapt over time is likely why it remains relevant.

Today, TCM exists as a parallel system to Western Medicine in much of East Asia. Its focus on healthy diet and exercise—and a holistic approach to treatment—makes it an excellent compliment to diagnoses arrived at via Western Medicine and, often, patients will be consulted by a team that consists of practitioners of both systems.

The problem, in reality, is not the practice of TCM, which some activists and conservationists have argued. Instead, it is an economic system that spans borders and is driven by a lack of education at the consumer level and opportunism among dealers and traders.

A Cross-Cultural Solution

The solution, then, is one that considers the unique needs of all involved, including TCM practitioners and patients, conservationists, governments, and international governing bodies. Activists and policy makers must operate from a position of understanding, recognizing the proven value of TCM and focusing, specifically, on the problems TCM faces in countries increasingly eager to embrace Western culture. Practitioners, on the other hand, must continue to advocate for the sustainable use of natural resources but also focus efforts on educating patients on the essential value of alternatives.

In the end, Traditional Chinese Medicine should not become a scapegoat for international conservation issues. Instead, it should be recognized as a valuable, centuries old, body of medical practice and, more significantly, a flexible tool for educating people otherwise unconcerned with the health of species struggling a continent away.

UPDATE: Reading the comments, there seems to be some confusion over the central argument of this post. To help clarify things, here is a quick summary:

1. The efforts of conservation police in Africa, while commendable, have not been able to keep pace with increasingly well financed and equipped poachers.

2. This is and economic issue. Market demand in Asia (and yes, Yemen and other places) drives up the price of illegal animal products, making the financial payoff poachers stand to earn worth, in their eyes, the risk of arrest or death.

3. Market demand is based on the belief that rhino horn has a medicinal value. Science has shown it does not but that hasn't dissuaded everyone.

4. Traditional Chinese Medicine is a centuries-old cultural institution that has the ability to change. More importantly it has, like all cultural institutions, the ability to change how people think. By working with and not against TCM practitioners (ie. doctors and pharmacists) activists have an effective tool for eliminating the bulk of the demand for rhino horn.

5. This is an international issue, meaning that the full participation of the United Nations, national governments, and NGOs like TRAFFIC are essential for finding a solution.

Read more about conservation:
The Problem With 'Shoot to Kill' Conservation
Life on the Endangered Species Waiting List
Why Conservation Matters in Conflict Zones
Read more about rhinoceros:
Rhino Poaching in South Africa Reaches a New Record
Suspected Rhino Poachers Shot Dead in South Africa
Rhino Horn Now Worth More Than Gold - And You Wonder Why Poaching Continues...

Tags: Animals | Conservation | Endangered Species

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