for ancient medicines flourish in China
By Fred Pearce, Globe Correspondent, 5/6/2003
It felt and looked like
a large black prune. But you can't be too careful. ''What is it?''
I asked. ''It's a birth sac, a placenta,''
came the reply. ''What animal?'' A brief smile. ''Oh, a human.
You take it for women's problems, and to make you more beautiful.''
hurriedly put it back on the market stall. I had heard of women
frying their own placenta for a post-delivery breakfast. But other
peoples' afterbirths? That sounded more like cannibalism than medicine.
I was in the heart of Hehuachi, the
traditional medicines market in Chengdu, capital of China's Sichuan
province. A giant hangar the
size of a couple of football fields was packed with stalls selling
herbs and spices, potions and animal parts of every description.
Some of it would not have been out of place in a Western street
market on a Saturday morning. But there was much that was more
were hedgehog pelts reputed to cure rheumatism, dog's kidneys that
promoted sexual arousal, newts to treat stomach ache, and dried
snakeskins for dunking in wine as a tonic. There were all manner
of deer and antelope parts, including feet and tails, horns and
penises; jars of caterpillar fungus incongruously labeled in English;
boxes full of tiny crabs and dried sea horses that, the stallholders
insisted, would bring ''youthfulness.''
Other delicacies on sale nearby
included bat feces, pangolin scales, seal genitals, the fallopian
tubes of frogs, toad venom, cuttlefish
bones, and dried geckos and leeches arranged in rows like chocolate
bars on a counter.
Hehuachi is but one outpost of a fast-growing
trade in traditional wild medicines that, thanks to freer markets,
to have no
limits. Based in China, it is spreading around the world.
have tried to dismiss traditional Chinese medicine as a witch's
cauldron of false remedies and bogus aphrodisiacs. But
the truth is different, said Rob Parry-Jones of TRAFFIC, an organization
that monitors China's trade in endangered species on behalf of
groups like WWF.
Many traditional medicines have been
found successful in epidemiological trials. Research conducted
for WWF at the Chinese
University of Hong
Kong has found that both rhino and saiga antelope horn can cure
fevers and convulsions, for instance. And Western drug companies
a surprising number of active ingredients in Chinese medicines
for their products.
A plant used in China to fight asthma
contains ephedrine, a stimulant that is prescribed in the West
for the same condition.
a 1,500-year-old Chinese treatment for malaria using artemisin,
an extract from a type of daisy called artemesia, or wormwood,
adopted worldwide by Western doctors when existing measures fail.
China's foremost chronicler of the
country's pharmacological history, Cai Jing-Feng of the China Academy
of Traditional Chinese Medicine
in Beijing, is also a doctor trained in the Western tradition.
He said the philosophies behind the two traditions are very different.
doctors generally treat the disease or the diseased organ, while
the Chinese tradition is to treat the whole body to bolster
its defenses. But, as several of the examples above show, the treatments
are often much the same.
In China, you are what you eat. And
more and more Chinese are using traditional medicines as food.
the possible risks from overdosing
on active ingredients, the prevailing view is that the richer you
get, the more health food you should eat.
Economists have put the
total value of the Chinese medicine market in wild products at
between $6 billion and $20 billion annually,
85 percent based on plants, 13 percent on animals and just 2 percent
Guo Yinfeng, author of a report for
the Chinese government's endangered species scientific commission,
said she met one woman
in Anguo in Hebei province who told her she could supply a ton
of dried rat snakes from her warehouse without notice. A trader
market in Guangzhou told her he sold 60 tons of sea horses a year.
also polled 13 of China's largest medicine manufacturers, who take
these raw ingredients and turn them into packaged products.
They declared an annual turnover between them of, among other things,
6,000 tons of flying-squirrel feces, 25 tons of leopard bones,
1,600 tons of rat snakes, 200 tons of pangolin scales, 500 tons
and 6 million geckos.
Traditional Chinese medicine has in
the past helped protect some species of plants and animals by encouraging
people to preserve their
habitats. But all restraint seems to have gone. ''Now the trade
the biggest threat to wildlife,'' said Guo's colleague, Xie Yan.
February, scientists revealed that poachers had reduced the population
of saiga antelope in Central Asia from more than a million to just
30,000 in less than a decade - all to serve a Chinese medicinal
market for their powdered horns. The threat extends to plants,
candidum, an orchid that is believed to cure hoarseness, is now
so rare that, pound for pound, it costs 12,000 times more than
Both wild magnolia bark (used to fight
stress and treat digestive problems) and licorice (used for coughs,
skin infections, and pain
relief) are almost wiped out in China - the latter largely at the
hands of Chinese soldiers making some pocket money by digging up
the plant in the country's northern border region.
China has responded
to some international concerns. Bears are rarely hunted for their
bile, popular as a treatment for gallstones. Instead,
some 7,000 are held on bear farms and ''milked,'' albeit in ways
that have caused outrage among the animal welfare community in
But sometimes the use of substitutes
can backfire. Leopards, now used instead of tiger bones, are becoming
rare. And the recent
of saiga antelopes in Kazakhstan had its origins in the well-intentioned
suggestions of conservationists that saiga horn was a sensible
substitute for rhino horn.
Many in the West may recoil at some
of these remedies. But as the Chinese Westernize in many spheres
of their lives, their
traditional medicines seems to persist. Anyone for a prune?
ran on page B11 of the Boston Globe on 5/6/2003.
Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.