They look like something out of a sci-fi novel: bodies covered in a tight-knit scaled pattern, walking on their hind legs and using their amazingly long front claws for balance, curling up and wrapping their long tails around them in a defensive posture when they’re threatened. Pangolins, also known as scaly anteaters, live throughout the tropics of Africa and Asia, but their numbers are dwindling. They’re threatened by habitat loss and other environmental pressures, but they’re also struggling to combat a thriving illegal trade amongst people interested in using their body parts in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).
It’s estimated that around 10,000 pangolins are seized annually by conservation officials attempting to disrupt the trade in their scales, which are used as a clarifying and detoxifying ingredient. Yet, evidence suggests the true scale of the trade may be even higher than that, which is unsustainable for animals with a relatively slow replacement rate like the pangolin. Without swift and effective conservation action, the pangolin’s status could become even more precarious, and it might face extinction.
This and other conservation tragedies revolving around animals who are hunted down for ingredients used in traditional medicine can be a complicated cross-cultural issue. While many Western conservation advocates rail at the waste of using animal parts in medicine and insist that they have no medicinal value, TCM practitioners and advocates feel quite differently about the matter. A conservation program focused on belittling traditional cultural and medical practices isn’t likely to succeed — not least because TCM has actually contributed a number of important medical discoveries to the West, including herbs and other organisms that are used in conventional medicine today.
TCM and other cultural traditions relying on animal parts often become targets for Western conservationists, but the solution to helping endangered animals doesn’t lie in perpetuating acrimonious and often racist divides between East and West. After all, Western medicine itself is not without animal derived ingredients. Instead, cross-cultural solutions can focus on a number of ways to protect animals like pangolins and rhinos, without alienating TCM practitioners, many of whom are also concerned about conservation and are willing to consider ways to help conservationists.
Outreach campaigns to clients who rely on TCM are critical, to get them thinking about alternatives. Meanwhile, practitioners can develop new tools for treating conditions that have historically been managed with animal ingredients. TCM relies on a huge library of herbs, fungi, and other ingredients that don’t have to come from animal sources. If their customers are educated about conservation and shown options that allow them to get the care they want without harming animals, it creates a third, humane path that conserves precious species without attacking cultural values and traditions.
Protecting animals doesn’t have to come at the expense of traditional medicine that’s been practiced for centuries across not just China but many other parts of Asia, if conservationists are willing to work with TCM practitioners. While it introduces yet another element into a complex conservation roadmap, it’s an important one; think of trying to cross a river without a bridge and you’ll understand the importance of reaching out and making cross-cultural conservation connections. For animals like the rhino and the pangolin, it can’t come too soon.
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