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 Callís 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.
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