NEW YORK: In a controversial decision questioned by wildlife scientists around the globe, the World Health Organisation (WHO) is set to formally recognise traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) for the first time at the 72nd World Health Assembly in Geneva this week.
Given this decision, the 11th version of WHO’s International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD), including 400 diagnoses pertaining to TCM, will be adopted by 194 WHO member states in 2022.
For centuries, traditional Chinese medicine has played a positive role in human health and culture, including the discovery and use of artemisinin to treat malaria. Respecting the numerous benefits of TCM to human civilisation and acknowledging that most TCM bodies have already taken wild animal parts out of their pharmacopoeia, many wildlife conservationists are nevertheless concerned about the repercussions for wild animals if the industry grows without greater clarity and supportive action from global public health authorities and nations regarding acceptable TCM practices.
Today, the tiger, pangolin, bear, rhino and other species are poached for their organs that are used in TCM to treat ailments from arthritis to epilepsy to erectile dysfunction. There is, however, no basis in science to support TCM’s claims regarding the efficacy of the vast majority of these remedies and, in any event, there can be no justification to eradicate entire species when other existing and well-proven methods can clearly treat these medical challenges.
Wild cats, in particular, are under threat, and the threat is increasing dramatically due to TCM and the demand it has created for ever-higher volumes of wild animal parts. With fewer than 4,000 tigers left in the wild, there is growing evidence that poachers have now set their scopes on lions, jaguars and other big cats.
Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organisation, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and Wildlife Conservation Trust urge the World Health Organisation to condemn the use of traditional Chinese medicine utilising wild animal parts, including from captive-bred specimens, sending an unequivocal message to the world that it will not legitimise this practice in TCM and the decline of wild animal populations around the globe.
Measures to crack down on the illegal wildlife trade from nations such as China and Vietnam, including ending the captive breeding of threatened species for trade, will allow the proliferation and strengthen the credibility of TCM without causing undue harm to wild animals.
Panthera Chief Scientist and Tiger Programme Senior Director, Dr John Goodrich, stated: “Any recognition of traditional Chinese medicine from an entity of the World Health Organisation’s stature will be perceived by the global community as a stamp of approval from the United Nations on the overall practice, which includes the use of remedies utilising wild animal parts. Failure to specifically condemn the use of traditional Chinese medicine utilising wild animal parts is egregiously negligent and irresponsible.
“Taken with China’s recent proliferation of traditional Chinese medicine around the globe, WHO’s decision could contribute to the end of many species on the brink of extinction, like the tiger.”
In response to recent criticism, WHO stated that inclusion of TCM in its global medical compendium does not mean it condones the use of animal parts or endorses the scientific validity of the practice and that it recommends the enforcement of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
However, Panthera, EIA and Wildlife Conservation Trust are in agreement that this is how the world, including poaching syndicates, will interpret WHO’s decision and that the organisation has both a responsibility to specify what it will and will not support within TCM and an opportunity to stem the tide of biodiversity loss.
Many species included in TCM are also not protected through CITES and, with little conservation attention and funding, these animals can quickly move from ‘least concern’ to ‘endangered’, as highlighted in the recent United Nations global biodiversity report.
Proponents of TCM utilising wild animal parts point to legal captive breeding operations as the silver bullet solution to reduce poaching pressure on wild animals. Even the most highly regulated legal captive industry, however, provides ample cover for the illegal wildlife trade, triggers the poaching of wild animals whose organs are desired moreso because of their freedom and raises extraordinary questions around ethics and animal cruelty. Findings around Thailand’s Tiger Temple and South Africa’s legal captive lion industry support this claim.
Panthera President and CEO Dr Fred Launay stated: “As the world’s leading global public health organisation, the WHO should be well aware that human health is highly dependent on the vitality of animal populations in the wild and the ecosystems they support. Condemning traditional Chinese medicine utilising wild animal parts is a common sense, win-win move for the wellbeing of people and wild animals alike.”
It’s not just tiger bone that is used in TCM. Debbie Banks, EIA Tiger Campaign Leader, stated: “Over 5,000 Asian leopards have been seized in trade in the past two decades. China’s licensed domestic trade in leopard bone wine and pills is a major driver of demand and the scale of the trade is huge. In 2018, the trade in 1.23 tonnes of leopard bone was authorised between just two companies out of at least 30 that are licensed to produce leopard medicines.”
Through China’s Belt and Road initiative, the country has aggressively promoted TCM in recent years to capture a share of the industry’s $130 billion market, with new medical tourism hotspots established in dozens of cities in and outside of China. Many believe the rise of TCM is responsible for a surge in illegal wildlife trafficking, with the seizure of record volumes of threatened species in Hong Kong since the start of 2019, including scales from nearly 14,000 pangolins and its largest-ever shipment of rhino horns.
In October 2018, the Chinese Government reversed a 25-year ban on the use of tiger and rhino parts in TCM but, due to an overwhelming international outcry, the ban was temporarily reinstated. Yet recent reports suggest that China is succumbing to pressure from tiger breeders and farms by quietly creating loopholes allowing the trade to move forward.
Wildlife Conservation Trust President Dr Anish Andheria stated: “While choosing to endorse TCM, the WHO seems to have ignored the compelling data that links illegal wildlife trade to the mortality rates of frontline forest staff and the exploitation of forest-dwelling communities. With human health being its primary mandate, it is imperative that the WHO aids the efforts to improve healthcare for these vital stakeholders of the planet’s natural health, instead of endorsing practices that further endanger their wellbeing in addition to the insurmountable pressure it puts on conservation of India’s big cats.”
Susie Weller Sheppard, sweller[at]panthera.org
1. Panthera, founded in 2006, is devoted exclusively to preserving wild cats and their critical role in the world’s ecosystems. Panthera’s team of leading biologists, law enforcement experts and wild cat advocates develop innovative strategies based on the best available science to protect cheetahs, jaguars, leopards, lions, pumas, snow leopards and tigers and their vast landscapes. In 36 countries around the world, Panthera works with a wide variety of stakeholders to reduce or eliminate the most pressing threats to wild cats – securing their future and ours.
2. The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) investigates and campaigns against environmental crime and abuses. Our undercover investigations expose transnational wildlife crime, with a focus on elephants, pangolins and tigers, and forest crimes such as illegal logging and deforestation for cash crops such as palm oil; we work to safeguard global marine ecosystems by tackling plastic pollution, exposing illegal fishing and seeking an end to all whaling; and we address the threat of global warming by campaigning to curtail powerful refrigerant greenhouse gases and exposing related criminal trade.
3. Using the tiger as a metaphor for all of nature, Wildlife Conservation Trust (WCT) was envisioned to preserve and protect India’s rich natural heritage. Currently, WCT works in and around 160 Protected Areas across 23 states in the country covering 82 per cent of India’s 50 tiger reserves, 21 per cent of the 769 Protected Areas and impacting a population base of approximately 3.5 million people. WCT aims to reduce anthropogenic pressure on forests and river systems through a robust and tested 360 degree approach involving the forest department, local communities, corporates and other NGOs with a firm belief in landscape-level conservation, factoring in the needs of people dependent on these forests.