HomeAsiaAfrica's traditional Chinese medicine boom sparks fears for endangered species

Africa's traditional Chinese medicine boom sparks fears for endangered species

A massive rise in the use of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) products in a number of African countries in recent years is fueling demand for endangered species whose body parts are used to make certain ingredients, a recent report has found.

The Chinese government has been ramping up the export and production of TCM products in Africa as part of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road global connections drive, with chains of TCM suppliers and clinics across the continent, according to a report from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA).

“The aggressive expansion of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) in many African countries is posing a direct threat to the future of some endangered species,” the group said in a statement.

Pangolin scales are in high demand for Chinese traditional medicine. (Associated Press)

EIA campaigner Ceres Kam said traditional medicine is integral to many cultures and plays an important role in global healthcare.

“However, while the majority of TCM treatments are plant-based, some pharmaceutical companies continue to source ingredients from threatened animals, aggravating the pressure on the survival of these species,” Kam said.

“Our very real concern is that such a huge expansion of TCM in Africa, as is happening under China’s Belt and Road Initiative, will have the knock-on effect of drastically increasing demand for treatments containing wildlife and, in turn, cause more species to become threatened or extinct,” she said.

“Any utilization of threatened species in TCM could potentially stimulate further demand, incentivize wildlife crime and ultimately lead to over-exploitation,” Kam warned.

Hong Kong writer and activist Riki Ueda, who has volunteered in wildlife conservation in South Africa, agreed.

“The demand for traditional Chinese medicine will increase, and the pressure on these animals will definitely increase,” she said, citing a recent rise in ivory poaching following the legalization of trade in existing ivory.

“Is the legal trade contributing to the illegal trade? Both seem to be growing in parallel … and the [legal trade] is bound to have a negative impact on the species and the illegal wildlife trade alike.”

Ueda called for research to support replacing animal parts with plant-based remedies throughout TCM practice.

Confiscated rhino horns (top) and ivory tusks are displayed during a news conference at Hong Kong Customs in 2013. A total of 1,120 ivory tusks, 13 rhino horns and five pieces of leopard skin were found inside a container from Nigeria. (Reuters)
Confiscated rhino horns (top) and ivory tusks are displayed during a news conference at Hong Kong Customs in 2013. A total of 1,120 ivory tusks, 13 rhino horns and five pieces of leopard skin were found inside a container from Nigeria. (Reuters)

While the impact of the illegal ivory trade on elephants has been well documented, rhinos are another highly endangered species, with only about 25,000 rhinos left in the wild.

“Since 2008, 5,940 rhinos have been recorded as hunted and killed in Africa,” TCM doctor and former Taiwan health ministry official Huang Lin-huang told RFA. “Scientists believe this number is an underestimate.”

Now based at Taiwan’s embassy in Eswatini, Huang said he has never believed in the efficacy of powdered rhino horn, which was banned in China, before being made legal again in 2018.

“I never believed it had any special curative effects,” Huang said. “Folks believe that rhino horn can reduce fever, but salicylic acid can reduce fever.”

“Even water poplar bark can do that … this amplification of the superstitions and traditional uses of rhino horn have contributed to a disaster for rhinos,” he said.

Hundreds of rhinos killed

According to the latest statistics from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in South Africa,  poachers killed 394 rhinos in the whole of 2020. But the number rose to 249 in the first half of 2021 alone.

In Botswana, at least 100 rhinos have been killed by poachers in the last three years, since President Mokgweetsi Masisi took office in 2018 and disarmed anti-poaching squads, taking away their right to kill poachers on sight.

According to Ueda, the illegal trade in powdered rhino horn has gotten cleverer at covering its tracks, and many operations now grind the horn into powder and disguise it as beads or other substances before shipping to East Asia.

To combat poaching, the horn of this black rhino in Kenya has been cut and a tracking device fitted to the animal to monitor its movements. Illegally poached rhino horn brings in large sums of money. (AFP)
To combat poaching, the horn of this black rhino in Kenya has been cut and a tracking device fitted to the animal to monitor its movements. Illegally poached rhino horn brings in large sums of money. (AFP)

“These professional poachers are well-trained and can cut off rhino horns within minutes,” Huang said.

“In South Africa, you can get up to six years for manslaughter, but up to 15 for killing a rhino, and yet the [poachers] aren’t deterred … because of the huge profits involved,” he said.

And there are fears that poaching gangs are infiltrating conservation organizations, too.

Ueda, who has volunteered on a South African nature reserve, said staff on the reserve were very cautious about sharing any rhino-related information with her.

“Some staff were more careful with me at the beginning of my assignment, or were not very willing to talk to me at all,” she said.

“Sometimes they would make jokes about ‘you Asians coming to poach our rhinos’,” she said.

For Ueda, the key lies in educating people back home about the damage their medicines are doing.

“Buyer ignorance and indifference to wild animals is the first target for education,” she said. “It’s demand from [East] Asia that is killing wild animals in Africa, so we can’t just stand by and watch that happen.”

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.



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