The popularity of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is growing rapidly among people who are seeking alternative healthcare remedies rather than relying on Western medicine alone. With the World Health Organization (WHO) poised to recognize TCM as legitimate medicine starting next year, interest in Chinese medicine is expected to boom. However, many wildlife conservationists fear that the growth of TCM will endanger wildlife on a massive scale.
Danger to wildlife
The animal at most risk of becoming extinct in Asia is the pangolin. Once plentiful in China, the creature has now been almost wiped out from the country. The huge TCM demand has caused large-scale hunting of pangolins to spread to Southeast Asian nations and Africa.
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In TCM, the scales of the pangolin are ascribed to have almost magical medicinal properties. Its powder is prescribed for diseases like skin disorders, rheumatism, and coronary heart disease. The blood of pangolins is in great demand because of a belief that consuming it would make men more virile. Meanwhile, mothers consume powdered pangolin scales in order to lactate well for their babies.
There are also reports of Chinese companies trying to open up pangolin farms in Africa. Since China has an iron grip over many of the African nations it invests in, these companies can get away with hunting wild pangolins and including them in the stockpile of farmed pangolins, presenting entire batches as “farm-raised” animals.
Another animal at serious survival risk from TCM popularity is the rhino. China’s internal TCM demand is already contributing to large-scale trafficking of rhinos from Africa. With TCM growing worldwide, the demand for rhinos could end up causing the species’ extinction on the continent.
“It would be totally wrong if respecting the cultural beliefs of one country, China, led to the extinction of Africa’s biological heritage… [WHO must] take a strong line against the use of animal products, let alone those from endangered species,” Cathy Dean, chief executive officer of Save the Rhinos, a London-based charity that raises money for rhino conservation, said to National Geographic.
Popularizing TCM globally is one of China’s agendas for the world, aimed at promoting the soft power and culture of the country. Specialized TCM centers are being opened in places like the UAE, Poland, and Germany. Beijing’s medical authorities have also drafted an ambitious plan to rapidly popularize TCM along the Belt and Road projects.
“China wants to show its power… The more pressure you put on them, the more they resist,” Nguyen Van Thai, who founded and runs “Save Vietnam’s Wildlife” rescue center in Cuc Phuong National Park, said to The Washington Post.
However, the involvement of endangered animals can turn out to be a black mark on China’s TCM ambitions. If Beijing wants TCM to be recognized as an ethical medical system across the world, it must immediately set up a council to identify traditional medications that involve the use of endangered species and ban such products from being sold.
Earlier, the Chinese administration had removed rhinoceros horns and tiger bones from its approved list of medicinal ingredients. Until such strict actions are taken to protect the pangolins and other animals, TCM runs the risk of becoming a taboo medical system. It could even end up damaging the reputation of Chinese culture.