By Courtney Cavaliere, HerbalGram
In many cultures throughout the world, traditional remedies are concocted from animal parts. Because the harvesting of animal parts frequently requires the animal’s death, this medicinal use can have disastrous effects on some animal populations and contribute to the endangerment of some species.
Use of tiger bone and rhino horn in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), for example, contributed to reduced populations of both animals. Many countries instituted bans against tiger- and rhino-based products to stop further exploitation of those species, including China in 1993. Recently, however, facilities in China have begun selling tiger bone wine made from the bodies of farmed tigers (despite the country’s ban). Poaching of both tigers and rhinos has also seemingly increased, spurred largely by medicinal demand.
Some animals are farmed for medicinal and other uses, with the goal of ensuring sustainability. Thousands of bears, for instance, are trapped on Asian bear farms, where they are “milked” for their bile. These bears can spend 10 years or more confined to small cages and suffering repeated, painful bile extraction for the creation of medicinal bear bile products. Turtles and tortoises are also farmed at a massive scale throughout Asia. In addition to being eaten, turtles’ shells are boiled with herbs to create medicinal “turtle jelly.” Evidence indicates that farming of animals does not necessarily take pressure off wild populations, particularly as wild animals are often poached to help restock the farms.
Next: Are animal-derived remedies effective?
In addition to depleting animal populations and causing animal suffering, use of animal-derived remedies has questionable medicinal value. Unlike pharmaceuticals and many medicinal herbs, very few studies have been conducted on the safety and effectiveness of animal-based therapies. Many of these therapies may actually be harmful to consumers, as illness can be spread from animals to humans. Bear bile, in particular, poses dangers, as it is often contaminated with urine, pus, or feces.
In light of such concerns, many animal protection groups, researchers, and traditional practitioners have recommended potential alternatives to medicinally-used endangered or threatened animals. In Elizabeth Call’s 2006 book Mending the Web of Life, various botanical substitutes are suggested for several threatened animals used in TCM, based on the results of a survey of Chinese herbologists. A report released in 2006, meanwhile, which investigated plants with TCM properties and functions similar to specific animal ingredients, identified 15 botanical alternatives to tiger bone, 9 botanical alternatives to rhino horn, and 7 botanical alternatives to bear bile. Ongoing research indicates that the plant Coptis may be particularly effective as a replacement for bear bile.
There are some challenges associated with replacing animal-based medicines with plants. In particular, some practitioners are not adequately informed of the need for alternatives, and some may not view botanical therapies as suitable substitutes for animal parts. But a recent symposium on endangered species and TCM, held in Beijing, indicates that greater effort is being made to recognize and address such concerns. Promoting botanical substitutes is one of many strategies that can be used to help end the medicinal use of threatened animal species, and it may be increasingly needed as additional animal populations are stressed in the future.
(Full article available here.)