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SOS Rhino : In the News : Dried geckos, bear bile and rhino horns

Dried geckos, bear bile and rhino horns


The market 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.''

I 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 exotic.

There 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; and 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, appears to have no limits. Based in China, it is spreading around the world.

Many Westerners 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 have synthesized 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. Likewise, a 1,500-year-old Chinese treatment for malaria using artemisin, an extract from a type of daisy called artemesia, or wormwood, is being 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.

Western 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. Whatever 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 on minerals.

Guo Yinfeng, author of a report for the Chinese government's endangered species scientific commission, said she met one woman snake seller in Anguo in Hebei province who told her she could supply a ton of dried rat snakes from her warehouse without notice. A trader in Qingping market in Guangzhou told her he sold 60 tons of sea horses a year.

Guo 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 of scorpions, 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 is the biggest threat to wildlife,'' said Guo's colleague, Xie Yan.

In 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, too. Dendrobium candidum, an orchid that is believed to cure hoarseness, is now so rare that, pound for pound, it costs 12,000 times more than wheat.

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 the West.

But sometimes the use of substitutes can backfire. Leopards, now used instead of tiger bones, are becoming rare. And the recent slaughter 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 love of traditional medicines seems to persist. Anyone for a prune?

This story ran on page B11 of the Boston Globe on 5/6/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

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