Wildlife Trade

Traditional Chinese medicine

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is a holistic approach to healthcare where patients are treated using natural plant, mineral and animal-based ingredients. TCM dates back at least 3,000 years and is an indispensable part of Chinese cultural heritage. In the early 1990s, WWF began its traditional Chinese medicine program to promote alternatives to traditional treatments that use threatened or endangered species, such as tigers and rhinos.

Although many species used in TCM are now protected by national and international laws, illegal trade and poaching has increased to crisis levels as TCM's popularity has expanded over the last two decades.

WWF and TRAFFIC work with traditional Chinese medicine practitioners and consumers to increase awareness of the plight of endangered species and to promote alternative treatments that use sustainably harvested, and often herbal, ingredients.

Tiger bone products confiscated by customs at Heathrow airport, London.
© WWF-Canon / Edward Parker

Background Information
For many centuries, tiger bone was a preferred treatment for joint ailments like arthritis, while rhino horn has been used to treat fever, convulsions and delirium. Bile from bear gall bladders is used to treat a variety of ailments, from inflammation to bacterial infections.

Although many TCM practitioners now reject the use of these and other endangered species, poaching continues. The use of these animals' parts and products is deeply rooted in traditional East Asian cultures and these ancient practices are slow to change.

Booming economies and growing wealth in parts of Asia have caused demand and prices to rise for many wildlife products. The combined pressures of commercial demand, excessive hunting and habitat destruction have depleted Asia's bear, tiger and rhino populations. Most experts agree that the trade in tiger bone for medicinal purposes was a major factor fueling the tiger conservation crisis of the 1980s and '90s.

All these medicines contain a small amount of rhinoceros horn.
© Esmond Bradley Martin

Animals and TCM
Traditional Chinese medicine has been practiced for more than 3,000 years, with generations of families relying on it to maintain their health and cure illness. But the popularity of some TCM cures has helped drive certain species close to extinction, including tigers and rhinos.

Fortunately, the majority of TCM practitioners in the United States report that the use of tiger and rhino parts is rare. But it must be stopped completely. The tiger is an ancient symbol of strength and power, and its bones have been used to treat arthritis and muscular atrophy for centuries.

Because of their use in medicines -- along with other factors like habitat loss -- tigers have almost disappeared, with as few as 5,000 to 7,000 left in the wild. If the use of their bones for TCM continues, the powerful and majestic wild tiger may not be around for future generations. Rhino horn has been used in Chinese medicines for centuries to treat fevers, convulsions and delirium. But now only 3,100 black rhinos survive in Africa. In Asia, the situation is even more dire, with only about 2,800 of all three Asian species combined.

Medicinal plants' market. Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China
© Michel Gunther

Plants and TCM
Several wild medicinal plants that play a large role in traditional Chinese medicine are on the verge of extinction.

An important plant is American ginseng, which in Chinese is called the "root of life." American ginseng has been used for generations in traditional Chinese and Native American medicines, for everything from universal cure-alls to fertility enhancement. Today it is the third most popular herb sold in U.S. health food stores.

U.S. exports of American ginseng, destined primarily for East Asia, average about 60 tons per year. This rising demand threatens the survival of American ginseng in the wild because, while vast quantities of ginseng are cultivated for medicinal purposes, it is widely believed that wild ginseng root is more efficacious than that from a cultivated source. Therefore, wild ginseng commands much higher prices, is in high demand, and is being unsustainably collected.

Steps have already been taken to ensure the survival of wild American ginseng. The species is listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which regulates international trade. Within the U.S., harvest is regulated by the federal government in cooperation with more than two-thirds of the states where wild ginseng is found.

Also threatened, licorice root is an Asian plant species commonly used for pain relief and to treat coughs, skin infections, food and drug poisoning. Due to excessive harvesting and habitat destruction, licorice root is now grown in less than half its previous area; reduced from 50,000 square miles to about 19,000 square miles.

The long term survival of these plants and others will remain in doubt without more effective management and implementation of sustainable harvest programs throughout their ranges.

Consumers of herbal medicines can help prevent the overexploitation of threatened plant species by asking retailers -- pharmacies, health food stores, and online vendors -- to offer evidence that the herbs they sell were collected sustainably or from cultivated specimens.

Currently there is no system for identifying the source of herbal medicines; by becoming aware and adding their voices to the debate, consumers can be a powerful force for conservation.

Learn more
Traditional Chinese Medicine Conservation Results
WWF's Featured Traditional Chinese Medicine Projects


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