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Traditional Chinese Medicine: No Miracle Cure for Endangered  Species

Flickr | Oregon State UniversityTraditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is having a profound impact on some of the world's most endangered animals. A huge number of people rely on this form of medicine which has existed for more than 3000 years. Within TCM, animal body parts are sometimes used to create medicines, believed to cure a range of different ailments. The demand for these body parts is driving some species to the edge of extinction.
How are endangered animals used in TCM and how is this impacting upon the survival of these species?


Three of the five rhino species in existence are listed as critically endangered on the IUCN red list. Illegal poaching of these animals, driven in part by the demand for rhino horn in TCM has contributed to this status. The demand for rhino horn has driven prices sky high and it is now sold on the black market for the same price, in weight, as gold. Despite the fact that rhino horn is made from keratin and is therefore no different from our finger nails, many people believe that it has medicinal qualities. When consumed, it is thought that it can cure patients of ailments including fever, rheumatism, typhoid, food poisoning and 'devil possession'. Consequently, rhino numbers are dwindling. Sadly on 20th March this year the last male Northern White Rhino died, illustrating the need for immediate change to save this species from extinction.  

Pixabay | Alexas_Fotos Pangolins

The pangolin is one of the most trafficked animals in Asia. As with rhino horn, pangolin scales are made entirely of keratin however, within TCM they are highly-prized and thought to have medicinal value. As reported in nature, they are used to treat a range of illnesses including malarial fever and deafness. Additionally, the consumption of pangolin foetuses is associated with increased virility, and pangolin blood and body parts are used to treat fertility issues, asthma and cancer.  It is thought that approximately 200,000 pangolins are trafficked each year in China for use in TCM (Cheng et al., 2016). The IUCN red list states that two of the six species of pangolin are now endangered, with two listed as critically endangered.


Tigers have been used in TCM for over 1000 years. The tiger is very highly thought of in Chinese culture and TCM states that nearly all of a tiger’s body parts have some medicinal use. Tigers are used to create medicines to treat a huge variety of disorders. For example, tiger claws are supposed to act as a sedative for insomnia, whilst their teeth are used to treat fever. Their bones are also thought to have anti-inflammatory properties and promote healing. Although alternative medicines exist, there is a continued demand for tiger medicines for many reasons including their use as a status symbol. According to the ICUN red list, the tiger is now an endangered species and TCM is only helping to accelerate the reduction of wild tiger populations.

As well as rhinos, pangolins and tigers, several other endangered species including Saiga Deer and Hawksbill Sea Turtles are highly valued in TCM and are consequently at risk of poaching, putting them at real risk of extinction.

Pixabay | skeezeWhat is being done to prevent endangered animals being killed for use in TCM?

Efforts have been made to stop the use of endangered species in TCM. For example, the Convention on Illegal Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) has put laws and treaties in place in an effort to eradicate the trade in endangered species. Additionally, the world’s first Tiger Summit was held 2010 to discuss necessary actions to save the species. Despite these efforts, scientific investigations have revealed that Chinese medicines containing endangered animal parts are still being sold. One survey by the organisation TRAFFIC found that of 326 shops examined in Sumatra, 10% were selling such medicines, illustrating how the trade is still very much alive.

There are several reasons why endangered animals are still used in TCM. It has been said that CITES has a limited reach, isn’t always fully enforced and often there are contradictory ideas about protecting endangered animals (Nagel, 1997). Furthermore, existing international legislation is often compromised by a lack of national legislation and enforcement. Poaching of endangered species is also incredibly lucrative. As an animal becomes rarer, the price for their body parts increases, encouraging illegal poaching. Finally, across China rhinos and tigers are now being farmed for their body parts. Though it might seem that this would help to protect endangered species because of less of a need to take animals from the wild, it also means that it is possible for body parts from poached animals to be trafficked among those from farmed animals.

Flickr | Orin ZebestHow can you contribute?

Traditional Chinese Medicine is driving the trafficking of many endangered species. Efforts are being made to reduce the threat that TCM poses to the survival of endangered species however, more needs to be done to reduce the demand for animal parts and in doing so, reduce the value associated with killing these animals. The best way to do this would be to educate the TCM community of how seriously the survival of some species is threatened and to make them aware of alternatives medicines available. The question is, will attitudes will change in time to save those species most at risk.

Frontier runs several conservation projects with the aim of saving the endangered species mentioned in this article. If you are interested, why not get stuck in and join our Vietnam Pangolin Rescue project, our Zimbabwe Black Rhino and Elephant Conservation project or even our Malaysia Tiger Conservation project?

By Rosie Hynard - Events and Marketing Intern

Frontier runs conservation, developmentteaching and adventure travel projects in over 50 countries worldwide - so join us and explore the world!

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