Over-the-Counter Wildlife

The Medicinal Trade in Animals and Plants Reaches Epidemic Proportions

During a 1983 auction in South Korea, the bidding for an especially-prized black bear specimen grew incredibly intense, finally stopping at $55,000. The winning bidder didn't get a trophy for his den, but instead a small fleshy mass-the animal's gall bladder, believed in Asia to have miraculous medical properties.

According to TRAFFIC USA, a division of the World Wildlife Fund, the active ingredients of many western medicines are based on or derived from wild animal and plant derivatives. The World Health Organization estimates that 80 percent of the world's population relies on animal and plant-based medicines, and this figure continues to climb as more people purchase herbal and homeopathic remedies.

Photo courtesy of World Wildlife Fund

A single horn from an endangered rhino can be worth $149,000 on the Chinese medicinal market.

Wildlife poaching for medicinal remedies is big business, bringing in several billion dollars a year, according to an Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) report. At least 430 medicines containing 80 endangered and threatened species have been documented in the U.S. alone. Much of that trade involves cures based on ancient Chinese practices- known as traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). It is this market, centered in Asian population centers like Los Angeles and New York City, which accounts for the bulk of endangered species trading. According to EIA, at least one third of all patented oriental medicine items available in the U.S. contain protected species.

Under serious scrutiny is the trade in bear parts, particularly bear gall bladder. The Asiatic black bear's gall bladder bile, dried and ground into a powder for medicinal concoctions, fetches $2,000 on the black market. It is in such short supply that Asian markets have now focused their attention on another species: the North American black bear. Though current black bear populations are not severely threatened, they may soon be: The illegal trade in California alone is estimated at $100 million a year.

Lieutenant James Watkins of the California Department of Fish and Game says, “When extracted, the dried granules of bile would be worth about $12,000 on the street.” Ounce for ounce, he says bear gall bile is worth more than cocaine.

Several Japanese companies are now marketing synthetic gall as an alternative, and it's slowly gaining favor in South Korea. The medicinal benefits of bear gall are not denied in the west: Actigall, a synthetic form of ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA)-the active ingredient in bear gall-is used to dissolve kidney stones and treat cirrhosis of the liver.

John Perrine of Defenders of Wildlife says, “There's documented evidence of black, grizzly and polar bear poaching, but it's primarily black bears.” He adds, “The gall bladders are so valuable, it's worth their investment for Asians to come over here and join the hunt so they can guarantee the organs came from a bear.” The medicinal trade is also affecting deer species, like white-tailed deer, moose, caribou and elk. “All North American deer have some medical value for their antlers, but elk are preferred,” explains Chris Robbins, program officer with TRAFFIC USA, a division of the World Wildlife Fund. The species are often killed for their antler velvet, though elk are not yet endangered by the practice. As North American farms continue raising elk for breeding and meat, many are now collecting shed antlers for exportation to China. Elk antler, which is used for (…) now trades for $150 to $200 per pound.

Ancient Greeks and Romans credited seahorses with the ability to cure baldness and rabies. In 720, this notion was incorporated into TCM. Now, the seahorse trade exceeds 20 million individuals each year, with some populations declining by 50 percent in the last five years. Such intensive harvesting is taking its toll, for seahorses have low reproductive rates, are monogamous and have small ranges. More seahorses are now used for the TCM markets than are harvested for aquariums and curio trinkets. One Chinese TCM importer notes that 30 percent of seahorses may now be going to factories producing manufactured medicines.

While the shark cartilage cancer treatment trade has flourished in recent years, decimating numerous species (see “War on Sharks” or whatever it was called), rhinos and tigers have never known a reprieve from TCM markets.

The Indian rhino continues to be threatened in its native land, where poachers have developed a new method to bring down their prey: electrocution. While shooting remains the method of choice, dangling wires connected to high-voltage powerlines across rhino paths are now being deployed, along with another grisly trap-pits lined with sharpened bamboo stakes. In the 1980s and early 1990s, 700 rhinos were claimed for the horn market. The largest seizure of rhino horn ever occurred last year: 105 horns valued at $4.7 million were found in two London garages. The horns, poached from white and black rhinos (of which only 10,000 total remain) were incalculably valuable: one alone was valued at $149,000. Due to regulatory enforcement and better management, Indian rhino populations—once reduced to a handful—are now making a comeback—2,000 now survive in India and Nepal.

Also in danger of extinction, the Siberian tiger continues to be hunted for its bones and penis. Tiger bone is ground into a powder and sold by TCM practitioners internationally as a cure for a variety of ailments; tiger penis is commonly sold as a potent aphrodisiac. Between 1991 and 1994, at least 180 tigers were killed for their medicinal parts. But increasingly vigilant anti-poaching efforts have given the species a brief reprieve: the tiger population in the Far East has slightly increased in recent years-an estimated 430 now live in the wild. Animals aren't the only casualties in the medicine trade. Native to North America, the goldenseal plant is under increasing pressure from intensive harvest for domestic and international markets. Of the 27 states reporting native patches, 17 consider the plant imperiled. Used as an antiseptic, laxative, anti-inflammatory, and overall detoxicant, goldenseal's wholesale value has increased 600 percent in the last five years.

Agarwood trees, found in India and Southeast Asia, are on the verge of extinction according to recent TRAFFIC reports, mainly because of commercial exploitation. The sweet-smelling agar, found in the inner wood of the tree, is a black substance formed from a fungal growth, and is prized for its therapeutic value in Indian ayervedic medicine, particularly in treating respiratory ailments and leprosy.

The use of wildlife in medicine predates Hippocrates. But as it increasingly stresses animal and plant populations, researchers are hoping that research into alternatives and synthetics may provide a satisfactory substitute.