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SOS Rhino : In the News : Archived News : May 2000 : Chinese Whispers

Chinese Whispers

By Camillo Fracassini
The Scotsman
May 9, 2000

- Chinese medicine seems apanacea for all the West's ills. Last week, researchers from the University of Portland suggested a remedy derived from the ginkgo biloba tree could be used to treat people who have suffered strokes. Last month, psychologists at the University of Northumbria suggested the plant may also help people with Alzheimer's disease. A chain of private fertility clinics in London is even claiming Chinese medicine can help childless couples conceive.

Rarely a week goes by without a clinical institute issuing a study revealing an ancient Chinese medicine's victory over a 21st-century illness, be it arthritis or eczema, depression or irritable bowel syndrome. And with celebrity patrons including Madonna, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, Christy Turlington and Robert De Niro, traditional Chinese medicine has a kudos that popping into to see your GP for antibiotics doesn't.

Yet Chinese medicine's popularity in the West as a cure-all with philosophical, holistic overtones isn't always good news for the environment. Only last month, the United Nations warned Indian tigers are being driven towards extinction, partly as a result of poachers hunting the animals for their bones and genitals, which are used as remedies for rheumatism and as an aphrodisiac. Bear gall bladders and rhinoceros horn are also revered for their potency. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, more than 50,000 Chinese medicinal items claiming to contain derivatives of endangered species were seized by Customs officers in 1998.

Among those who praise the benefits of Chinese medicine in the West, few would advocate the use of animal body parts, preferring to focus on plant -based compounds. The same can't be said of practitioners in Asia, where the use of body parts from endangered animals is widespread.

Sally Nicholson, head of international policy at the WWFN, says education is the key to protecting endangered animals. "We've been working with practitioners of Chinese medicine and doctors to raise awareness that these animals are being used, and to look at alternatives. These remedies have been used over generations - current practitioners sometimes don't know the animals they're using parts of are endangered." Nicholson says the WWFN have conducted workshops in Beijing, Hong Kong and San Francisco, where there is a big Chinese community, in which they explain the plight of tigers, rhinos and other endangered species. " So far, the response has been helpful. After all, it's not in their long-term interest to allow these species to go extinct."

In the UK, Nicholson says cases of endangered animal parts being used in Chinese medicine is not unheard of. "A few years ago, there were problems in China Town in London with the sale of products from endangered species," she says, but stresses that recent surveys have failed to uncover any products of critically endangered species on sale. "Shop owners have been co-operative once they know they're dealing with endangered species," she adds.

Whether shop owners continue to be co-operative as the popularity of Chinese medicine continues to rise remains to be seen. If powdered rhino horn or tigers' testicles are as effective in treating impotence as other herbs are in treating ME or psoriasis, then it may only be a matter of time before they find their way into Scotland. Chinese medicine's success may be at the expense of the world's biodiversity.

While derivatives of ginkgo biloba have been used in Asia for centuries to boost energy and performance levels, it's only now that scientists here are recognising it as the "holy grail" of cognitive enhancement, improving responses in both stroke patients and those with Alzheimer's disease. Gynaecologist Prof Yang Li, who is medical director of a new chain of private fertility clinics run by TCM Healthcare in north London, says Chinese medicine comes into its own when there is no obvious reason for a couple's infertility. Li often prescribes a combination of 10 to 20 herbs for an infertile woman, as well as tai chi to eliminate stress. While he bases his claims of success on his own case histories rather than clinical research, the clinics boldly promise a success rate of 50 to 80 per cent, compared to IVF's success rate of 20 per cent.

With such claims and apparent triumphs involving the use of Chinese remedies to attack contemporary ailments, it's no surprise there has been a rise in demand, either as an alternative to modern medicine or as a complementary therapy. The value of the market for herbal medicines in the UK, including Chinese varieties, rose from GBP 32 million in 1993 to more than GBP 50 million last year.

The Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine, the main regulatory body for practitioners in the UK, has seen its membership rise from 15 when it was launched in 1987 to 400 today. But the scores of practitioners and clinics across Scotland are struggling to cope with the demand for Oriental therapies.

Rather than focusing on specific symptoms, Chinese medicine aims to restore a natural balance to the body. Herbs and diet, acupuncture, massage and exercise are all used to regulate the body's yin and yang, qi - its vital energy - and blood.

Jonathan Clogstoun-Willmott, who set up the Edinburgh Chinese Herbal Medicine Centre 17 years ago, says: "When I first started out in Edinburgh there were only about three or four other people offering treatments of this kind. Now there are scores of us and we are run off our feet," he says.

Keith Robertson, the director of the Scottish School of Herbal Medicine, whose course features elements of Chinese herbalism, believes its popularity is a result of its efficacy. "Chinese medicine has a reputation for excellence in treating certain complaints, such as problems associated with menopause, rheumatoid arthritis and eczema. Many people who had been told that they would have to live with an illness, because Western medicine couldn't do anything for them, are finding herbal treatments can help."

While the West's love affair with Chinese medicine continues, moves are afoot to restrict the death of endangered species in Asia.

Sally Nicholson is optimistic. "Things will get better as governments become better able to enforce the laws they have in place and users become more aware that they will have to start looking for alternatives to the small number of products that come from the most endangered species. Alternatives will have to be found sooner or later and the sooner, the better."




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