An alternative to pangolins – protection through plant-based substitutes in traditional Chinese medicine

“Since ancient times, famous doctors often use living beings to treat emergencies. Though people say that animals are inferior and humans are superior, when it comes to cherishing their lives, animals and humans are the same. Harming others for the benefit of oneself is despicable for all beings, let alone humans! When one kills a life in the quest of staying alive, one strays further away from the way of living. This is the reason I have not included living beings in my formulas here.”

This quote is from Essential Formulas Worth a Thousand in Gold for Emergencies, the work of Sun Si Miao, a seventh century Chinese physician whose compassionate practices and medical breakthroughs in the field of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) earned him the honorary title of the King of Chinese Medicine.

Some 1,370 years after the publication of Sun’s famous work, 15 TCM practitioners and scholars led a conference in San Francisco from 16 October 2022 to encourage the use of alternative plant-based ingredients in place of threatened wildlife for TCM.


Acknowledging the impact which the illegal trade of wildlife species for TCM purposes has on populations such as tigers, pangolins and rhinos, this movement seeks to spread awareness and build support among the TCM community, wildlife conservationists, consumers and the general public to protect wildlife.

While wildlife species have historically been used in TCM for their purported specific healing properties, practitioners and professors at TCM Alternatives to Wild Animal Preparations (TAWAP) have identified various plant-based alternatives.

Supported by TCM institutions, associations and enterprises from the around the world, the US conference last month sought to “encourage all TCM practitioners to join us to protect wildlife from use in TCM practice and publicly voice our concerns stating that we are against any illegal use of endangered wildlife in TCM”.

©National Parks Board of Singapore-12.7 tonnes of pangolin scales were seized on 8 Apr 2019 in Singapore

Pangolin scales seized in Singapore (c) NPBS

This declaration is a crucial message to spread as delegates arrive in Panama City for the 19th Conference of the Parties (CoP19) to the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), where the issue of China’s domestic market for leopard bone and pangolin scale medicine is on the agenda.

EIA campaigners at CoP19 will be pressing for the closure of these markets for endangered species – the domestic market for pangolin scales for TCM use, although legal in China, provides a loophole for the trafficking and laundering of illegally sourced pangolin scales poached from Asia and Africa.

Research by EIA in 2022 documented a total of 47 pharmaceutical companies in China advertising a minimum of 57 commercially available products containing pangolin scales online.

In 2021, an EIA market survey conducted in the Chinese cities of Bozhou and Anguo, hubs for trade in TCM ingredients, discovered illegally sourced raw pangolin scales for sale.

In the run-up to the CITES CoP, EIA published a briefing detailing key priorities and recommendations for Parties and stakeholders to consider at the summit.

Traditional Chinese medicine product made with pangolin, via

Pangolin scale TCM product

On the issue of pangolins, EIA supports the adoption of all the UK Government’s proposed amendments to the pangolin resolution and associated decisions, which highlights the urgency for strengthened law enforcement controls, investigative measures, prosecutorial capacity, pangolin conservation and stockpile management.

With leaders in the field of TCM also advocating an end of the use of threatened species in TCM formulas, it would appear that the wheels of change have started turning within the community and the future survival prospects for pangolins could be looking brighter.