Traditional Medicine and the Trade in Animal (and Human) Body Parts

In the course of a monthly review of news stories related to traditional medicine, a half dozen developments appeared regarding conflicts surrounding the use of parts of mammals as traditional medicine. A step in the right direction was made in Vietnam, where traditional healers signed an oath to not use rhino horn medicinally. The action was directed by Nguyen Hoang Son, deputy director of the nation’s Traditional Medicine Administration. The third World Pangolin Day was announced and held on February 21, 2015, to celebrate and preserve a species (pictured) whose scales are treasured as medicines. Long overdue, especially from all anthropocentric observers, was an action in Tanzania: the government has banned traditional doctors who use albino body parts. Yes, human albinos.

The need for such collective actions was more often the theme. In India, for instance, there was a huge seizure of ivory and pangolin scales. In Myanmar, an observer visiting a temple that is a major tourist attraction was dismayed to discover that body parts of endangered species were openly sold as medicines. This writer for a Western blog called Munchies showed great indiscretion by teasing readers with information and pricing about the Chinese practice of drinking “tiger bone wine.” This posting came as a writer on a different site ruminated more holistically on the various forces, including traditional medicines that make it difficult to put a price on protecting tigers. Meantime, nearly 50 monkeys and slow loris (pictured) were found in the back of a car in China’s Guangxi Zhuang province. There, “investigators feared the animals could have been destined for traditional medicine or bush meat.”

Comment: I grew up in a tradition in which such medicines were only a symbolic part of my upbringing or culture. This was the (for me) Protestant communion practice of eating a wafer representing the body of Jesus and drinking wine that represented the blood. As such, terminating the actual practice of having mammals as medicine is not challenging. These bans cut closer to home when I think of times I have experimented with some form of vegetarian diet. Denying the food as medicine of meat from various creatures is certainly as disapproved by many, though without the direct argument of imminent extinction to support it. Still, ending these medicinal practices is much easier to anyone who, like me, was not inculcated with a belief that they are essential.

That said, there was no excuse for the Western writer’s cynical article on tiger wine. The counterpoint blog on challenges to protecting the wild tiger calls fallacious the argument of tiger farm owners that they offer a good, alternative source to poached animals. The argument is that we need a taboo as strong as the one that most probably imagined already existed regarding the use of albino parts. (No, that astonishing piece is not about rhinos but albino humans. The United Nations estimates 74 abductions of albinos for this trade in Tanzania since 2000.) As long as there is a medicinal market, some will view poaching as a livelihood; others, as a less expensive means of product sourcing.

One story during the month in which medicinal use of animal parts did not threaten a species is the reference to deer antler therapy in the emerging medical tourism trade in Kazakhstan. These deer parts are viewed as a potential attractant to a zone where deer are raised as livestock.

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