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Re: Replacing Animal-Based Remedies with Plants

Re: Replacing Animal-based Remedies with Plants

Dear Editor,

I read your article on zootherapy, which was well-researched and beautifully presented. All the same, I still see a problem with your approach.

It is good that you mention the dearth of scientific studies confirming the claims of animal-based medicine, and even better that you note: “many remedies appear to be primarily based on folklore and superstition.” This statement, however, raises the question, “Which remedies?” And the answer, unfortunately, is right on the cover: tiger-based remedies—“tiger medicine”—based on folklore and superstition. This being the case, you might not have begun your article by stating that “animal-based remedies are important therapeutic resources within many cultures,” and by affirming that “the medicinal use of animal species has led to the development of pharmaceuticals for global markets.” Because then you are compelled to cite the medicinal use of snake venom as an overall justification for the “many remedies based on superstition”—namely, for the massive killing and ultimate extinction of the tiger.

A less gentle approach to the subject, but one more helpful to the wild tiger, would have been to state on the cover that “Ginseng works—tiger medicine does not!” And then, in the article, to identify phony animal medicines, or at least to call for scientific tests to confirm their incredible claims. But instead you chose the polite path of advocating alternative plant-based medicines. “Polite to whom?” you might ask. To the Chinese, of course.

Your approach is the same as that adopted by the World Wildlife Fund and other animal-conservation organizations back in 1993. For 17 years the WWF has been gently and politely trying to persuade “Practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM),” as it titles the criminals who support the illegal tiger trade, to seek “equally effective alternatives to tiger-based medicines.” In some instances they have succeeded in making a change, but overall their program has disastrously failed. The Chinese aren’t listening. The demand is increasing. The population of wild tigers has plummeted, and the species is sliding into extinction.  The March 2010 Conference of Parties in Qatar, to which you refer positively, was a signal defeat for tiger conservationists. The Chinese government would not budge, would not allow outside inspections of trade from Asian tiger farms. Thus tiger conservation, based on soft-pedaling TCM, came to a dead end.

It is understandable that in HerbalGram you should seek to propose well-researched plant medicines as substitutes for unresearched (and imaginary) animal medicines. You might also have recommended rice protein powder and calcium tablets as a substitute for tiger bone, which has protein and calcium (plus imagination) as its active ingredients. Similarly, Viagra® can be proposed as a substitute for tiger-penis soup, which you neglected to mention. But from the point of view of tiger conservation, it is far too late for such games.

You can do the math yourself, using the figures from your own article. There are 1.4 billion people in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). You cite a 2007 survey in which 43% of PRC respondents admitted to consuming products with tiger “derivatives.” So let’s say, just to be conservative, that 10% of China’s population consumes tiger products in the next 10 years. That’s 140 million people served by 3,000 wild tigers, plus perhaps 10,000 farmed tigers. That’s roughly 1 tiger for every 10,000 Chinese consumers, plus all the hungry consumers of tigers outside of China—in Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand, etc. The population of tigers is falling; the population of tiger-eaters is rising.

The South China tiger is extinct. No one has seen any of the supposed 50 animals you mention for many years. The Sumatran tiger will be extinct within a few years. India has about 1000 tigers left, but the reserves are going silent one by one. Indian expert Valmik Thapar, after 30 years in tiger conservation, says that his life has been a failure. So it’s too late for ginseng, and besides, ginseng is often mixed with tiger potions anyway.

In such a circumstance, the only chance to save the wild tiger is to state the truth openly: that tiger medicine is a primitive superstition and the cause of the tiger’s destruction. The need is to stop the demand, and the only way I can see is to discredit it, to show that it is based on magical thinking—the belief that by consuming the great cat or any of its parts one can obtain its power and vitality. TCM should not be revered: It should be open to criticism and scientific testing, the same as medicine in the rest of the world.

Having said this, I am glad that you demonstrate very precisely that there is a specific herbal alternative to every animal medicine that endangers a major species. This part of the argument is therefore nailed down. I have written a long article on the plight of the tiger and plan to add citations to your work, but the effort to save the wild tiger now strikes me as so futile that it is difficult to keep going. It is time for screaming and shouting, not gentle diplomacy, which makes your delicate and beautiful piece so distressing.

—Gary Kern, Author, critic, Las Cruces, NM