Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is rapidly expanding worldwide as a key pillar of the country’s Belt and Road Initiative, but conservation groups have said that demand for treatments using animal products is driving a surge in illegal trafficking of wildlife.
Since the start of this year, authorities in Hong Kong have seized record volumes of threatened species, including 8.3 tonnes of pangolin scales from nearly 14,000 pangolins and its largest-ever haul of rhino horns, worth more than US$1 million.
The former British colony is one of the world’s primary wildlife trafficking transit points, supplying an array of products including shark fins, tiger parts and rhino horn across Asia and into China.
“One of the most alarming characteristics of wildlife trafficking is the growing use of threatened species in traditional medicines,” conservation group ADM Capital Foundation said in a report.
It identified the traditional Chinese medicine industry as accounting for more than three-fourths of the trade in endangered wildlife products in Hong Kong over the past five years.
The Chinese State Council has outlined a multi-decade plan to promote traditional Chinese medicine, including setting up hospitals, museums, medicinal zoos and botanical gardens in countries involved in its Belt and Road infrastructure rollout.
The industry is booming.
Worth about US$60 billion per year, according to a WHO bulletin, and growing at about 11 percent annually, according to IBIS World, practices such as acupuncture and herbal supplementation are finding acceptance globally.
The WHO said that it would formally recognize traditional Chinese medicine in its compendium in May, meaning more mainstream recognition of practices dating back more than 2,500 years.
While many practitioners have shunned the use of endangered species, environmental groups have said that traditional remedies including rare animals are still popular in Vietnam and China, where they are used to treat a range of ills from cancer to skin blemishes and hangovers.
Species including pangolin, rhino, saiga, seahorses, moon bears and tigers are some of the animals critically endangered by the trade, wildlife organizations have said.
China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation secretary-general Zhou Jinfeng (周晉峰) said that the WHO should take sustainability and science as preconditions for incorporating traditional Chinese medicine into its compendium.
“All medicinal treatment should be on the principle of ‘do no harm’ to those using, or making it and to the species it depends on; meaning in most cases no vertebrate should be used within TCM,” Zhou said.
Inclusion in the compendium does not mean that the WHO would endorse the scientific validity of traditional Chinese medicine, or that it recommended or condoned the use of animal parts, WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said.
“WHO recommends the enforcement of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which protects rhinos, tigers and other species,” he said.
While Hong Kong does not typically manufacture traditional Chinese medicine products, it imports them from China and a wide array, including pangolin scales, saiga horn and shark fin, are readily available in the territory’s Western District.
Hong Kong lawmaker Elizabeth Quat (葛珮帆) said that preventing the use of endangered animals in traditional Chinese medicine must happen in China.
“The Chinese government should do something. Manufacturing is mostly in China. The government needs to stop the production of it,” she said.
In online Chinese forums, customers can buy everything from African rhino horn to live young pangolins, also known as scaly anteaters, and the powdered horn of saiga, an endangered type of antelope found in Europe and Asia.
While the use of rhino horn is officially banned in China, pangolin and saiga products are legally used in traditional Chinese medicine, with big companies all producing them.
Companies including Kangmei Pharmaceutical Co Ltd (康美藥業) and Tong Ren Tang (同仁堂) have been given permits by local government bodies to produce medicines with pangolin scales and saiga horns, corporate filings showed.
Fujian Guizhentang Pharmaceutical Co Ltd (歸真堂), which owns the biggest moon bear breeding center in southern China, has permits for extracting bear bile, its Web site said.
China Traditional Chinese Medicine Holdings Co Ltd (中國中藥控股) last year acquired Beijing Huamiao Pharmaceutical Co (北京華邈), which it has said holds permits for the “processed products of some of the endangered and protected wild animals,” but did not elaborate.
None of the companies responded to multiple requests for comment.
The Chinese State Forestry and Grassland Administration and the Chinese National Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine did not respond to requests to comment.
The Hong Kong Department of Health said that the territory’s Chinese Medicines Board “has always been concerned about the balance between the protection of endangered species and the use of traditional Chinese medicine,” adding that it would continue to observe international regulatory trends and monitor the issue with regard to endangered species.
Farming of animals used in traditional Chinese medicine has been advocated by China’s forestry agency and some breeders as a sustainable way to use endangered animals in traditional Chinese medicine.
However, activists have said that the use of farmed supplies of animals such as tigers and rhinos risks enabling the laundering of wild animal parts.
Many treatments have already substituted herbal products for animal parts, and practitioners have said that herbal alternatives are just as, if not more, effective.
University of Hong Kong School of Chinese Medicine director Lao Lixing (勞力行) said that there was no need to use endangered species.
“Chinese medicine is part of the world,” Lao said. “We take care of the human health, the animals. If we use endangered species, it damages our reputation.”
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