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Prescription for Extinction: Endangered Species and Patented Oriental Medicines in Trade.
by Andrea L. Gaski and Kurt A. Johnson. 1994. TRAFFIC USA. Softcover. 300 pp. ISBN 1-85850-031-1.

TRAFFIC USA is the office of the World Wildlife Fund, that, among other things, monitors compliance in the U.S. of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora and (CITES). The present spiral-bound, 30-page white paper is the result of a seven-year effort in compiling information on endangered species used in Oriental medicines. In the foreword we learned that during this time Zimbabwe's black rhino population has declined by 75 percent; in India 350 tigers, on average, have been lost to poachers each year. Asiatic black bear, musk deer, and saiga antelope have all experienced significant population declines due to hunting for the Oriental medicines trade. The data is indeed alarming, and, as we shall see later, sometimes unnecessarily alarmist.

In compiling their database, TRAFFIC has documented 600 different,mostly patent, Oriental medicines medicines, produced by over 100 manufacturers sold in the United States. Of those at least 430 contain endangered, threatened, or protected animal and plant species. This number includes 80 endangered, threatened, or protected animal and plant taxa available in patent medicines sold in the United States.

The report shows that what is listed on the label is one thing, and what might be actually contained in a product could be quite another. The authors report that the Clark R. Bavin National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory has been conducting research on Oriental medicinal products, and sampling methods have shown that many products contain little, if any, endangered species derivatives, according to the report. TRAFFIC observation of medicine factories in China revealed that some manufacturers may include extremely minute amounts of species in question in products -- so minute that they may be undetectable. Such inclusion is obviously more of a marketing strata-gem for mass-produced patent medicines, which are the primary focus of the report. The authors point out, however, that there is no doubt over the gravity of the poaching crisis faced by rhinos, tigers, and other animal species, whose body parts are generally available in whole form at very high prices, rather than as a product ingredient, to select clientele primarily in Asian countries.

The situation is indeed a complex one, and the report brings all sides of the issue to light, along with the various U.S. laws that regulate such trade. These include the Endangered Species Act, the Lacey Act,the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, and of course the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.

A troubling problem revealed by the report is the allegation that many Chinese government-licensed manufacturers of Chinese patent medicines are allowed to substitute other animal or plant products for those listed on the label, without revealing that substitution on the package. In 1989 a TRAFFIC consultant went to China to visit patent medicine manufacturers and discovered that of 40 patent medicines checked, only 8 had formulas different from those listed on the labels. Substitutions included leopard sinews for tiger sinews. For overseas markets, in some cases ingredients such as tiger and bear parts were omitted.

Readers will find methods, results, and discussions in the first 133 pages of the book, along with background information on the origin of Oriental medicines in international trade, the U.S. market, U.S. laws, U.S. imports, and a review by key U.S. cities. The majority of the work is devoted to tables describing ingredients, prices, and an analysis of individual products listing specific target species of the report. Table one lists 34 plant species and their status as determined in the Chinese Red Data Book, and by their classification, by Dr. Steve Davis, Senior Research Officer of the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Monitoring Centre (as of December 1989).

The majority of the target ingredients in the report are of animal origin. Targeted plant species include Achyranthes bidentata, Astragalus, Eucommia ulmoides, Ginseng (Panax spp.), and Magnolia, particularly Magnolia officinalis.

Achyranthes bidentata, known as ox-knee, or niu-xi (Chinese), is considered rare or threatened in Ghana, tropical Africa, and middle Asia. However, the supply of the species which enters the Chinese drug trade is almost entirely cultivated, and cultivated roots are considered to be the highest quality. To this author's mind, the solution to medicinal plant conservation problems is simple -- medicinal plant cultivation. In the case of this species, that goal has been achieved. It is my belief that raising questions about the conservation status of this species is equivalent to "crying wolf." Conservation problems abound in medicinal plant utilization. Why attempt to highlight a problem where no problem exists?

I believe it does more to harm the conservation cause than to help it. The same argument can be made for raising questions over the conservation status of "milk vetch" in a generic sense, especially considering that the genus Astragalus, one of the largest genera of flowering plants, contains upwards of 2,000 species. Eucommia ulmoides is another case in point. Stands of Eucommia are rare in the wild, yet Eucommia plantations, maintained for production of the valuable bark, are widespread in China. I don't believe, based on what I know of Eucommia production, that a conservation problem exists. Its inclusion in the report hurts its credibility. The ginseng discussion, like the other plant discussions in this book, relies heavily, and inappropriately, on secondary literature (including that of this author), rather than authoritative primary sources which would have resulted in a different compilation. I leave the Magnolia discussion for a move knowledgeable reviewer of the subje ct matter.

Perhaps the status of a species entering trade, be it classified as rare, vulnerable, rare, threatened, or endangered, of a third-party classification/certification system that could independently assure that an at-risk species, particularly in the case of plants, is indeed cultivated if entering the commercial trade. Such a system could be modeled after third-party organic certification systems.

Prescription for Extinction raises serious questions about the international trade in Oriental patent medicines, especially the large number that contain or list animal parts on their labels. Once again, the question, "does the product include what the label indicates?" is raised. The troubling usage of animal parts that are protected in international trade, but continue to be used in Oriental medicinal products is a problem for the herb industry by association. However, it is unfortunate that the plant data in the report raises more questions about the project's methods than it does about conservation problems with the targeted species.

Article copyright American Botanical Council.


By Steven Foster