When the impotence drug Viagra was launched in 1998, few people could have foreseen the seismic impact its introduction would have on the underwater existence of a peculiar-looking and sexually ambiguous member of the Hippo-campus genus.
Seahorses have for 600 years been used in traditional Chinese medicine as a cure for impo-tence, served up in rice wine, mixed up raw with herbs or dished up in soup as a source of potency and virility.
Rather than diminish its appeal, the arrival of Viagra appears to have spurred a huge increase in demand for impotence remedies using seahorses as a cheaper alternative to the western wonder drug that was making headlines around the world.
Around 25 million seahorses a year are now being traded around the world -- 64 percent more than in the mid-1990s -- and environmentalists are increasingly concerned that the booming trade in seahorses is putting the creatures at risk.
Just this month, seahorses were added to a global watch-list of endangered species, obliging 161 countries and territories around the world to monitor the trade in seahorses and prohibit the trade in any specimen under 10cm in length.
There is an irony in the use of seahorses as a means of boosting virility. Modern research has established that, if anything, the male of the species is more in touch with its feminine side than anything else in the animal kingdom.
Seahorses are unique in being the only species where the male gets pregnant. The female injects eggs into the male, who has a pouch where the eggs are fertilized and carried for up to four weeks until they are ready to be born.
Seahorses can also lay claim to being the most romantic creature on the planet, performing a dainty daily underwater dance with partners and generally staying faithful for life. Experts have found this to be the case even if they are placed in a tank full of single, available seahorses of the opposite sex.
Increasing numbers of sea-horses are now finding themselves premature widows and widowers, however, as the demand for seahorses for use in traditional Chinese medicine continues to expand. By 2001, the last year for which comprehensive figures are available, global consumption had reached 70 metric tonnes, equivalent to 25 million seahorses compared to just 45 metric tonnes seven years earlier, and there is every sign that this trend is continuing.
Samuel Lee Kwok-hung is the Hong Kong-based representative of the Marine Medicinals Conservation Program, a joint initiative by TRAFFIC East Asia and the US-based research group Project Seahorse. He says rising demand for traditional medicine alternative to impotence drugs like Viagra had pushed up seahorse consumption. Most seahorses are imported through Hong Kong and Singapore.
"The majority of the demand is from China," he said, explaining that seahorses are used to treat asthma and other conditions as well as impotence and sexual dysfunction.
"With China becoming more and more open for foreign investment and for exporting products out of China ... the trade in traditional Chinese medicine is on the whole increasing," Lee said.
Project Seahorse is not calling for an end to the use of seahorses in traditional Chinese medicine. In developing countries it is often the only affordable form of treatment and its rise in popularity along with the Viagra phenomenon in the west is understandable.
What's more, the medicines they are used in appear to be effective and boast six centuries of satisfied customers.
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