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The deadly impact of traditional medicine on endangered wildlife

Traditional medicine is fuelling illegal wildlife trafficking. For the sake of the health of the ecosystems upon which humanity depends, we must end these destructive practices, write Eva Izquierdo and Emma Roupsy.

The Council of the European Union recently set out the EU’s 2022-2025 priorities for the fight against serious and organised crime through the European Multidisciplinary Platform Against Criminal Threats (EMPACT). Environmental crime, including wildlife trafficking, is one of the 10 priorities identified by member states. We welcome this prioritisation and we believe it highlights the growing importance of environmental crime in the EU and in particular of wildlife trafficking, which has become one of the most lucrative organised criminal activities in the world.

Illegal wildlife trafficking is any environment-related crime that involves the illicit trade, smuggling, poaching, capture or collection of endangered species, protected wildlife (including animals and plants that are subject to harvest quotas and regulated by permits), or derivative products.

Wildlife trafficking is a global problem that also reaches the European Union, where the vast majority of the illegal wildlife products seized by EU authorities are medicinal, mostly plant-derived traditional medicines, according to the latest report by wildlife NGO TRAFFIC.

Source: TRAFFIC report

The World Health Organisation’s definition of traditional medicine is “the sum total of the knowledge, skill, and practices based on the theories, beliefs, and experiences indigenous to different cultures, whether explicable or not, used in the maintenance of health as well as in the prevention, diagnosis, improvement or treatment of physical and mental illness”.Traditional Chinese medicine, European folk medicine  and Ayurveda are some examples of these practises.

Poisoned chalice

Traditional medicine is believed by its practitioners to treat and prevent diseases by using ingredients extracted from plants and animal. Nowadays, around 100 million Europeans use traditional medicine and some of them are likely to be consumers of illegal wildlife products. This is reflected in the fact that nearly two-fifths of the seizures of illegally trafficked wildlife products made in the EU were of a medicinal nature, according to TRAFFIC. The most seized medicinal products were derivatives of costus root, ginseng panax, seahorses, and king cobra.

The use of traditional medicine has been very close to indigenous communities around the world for centuries. Some have even used it as an antidote against destructive activities on their ancestral land. In the case of the community of Cajamarca, a municipality in the Andes, the inhabitants strongly opposed the mining activities that were damaging their natural heritage. They successfully developed a strategy of selling agro-ecological and medicinal products in the area to prevent mining activities in their territory. This is an example of how  protecting biodiversity and using traditional medicines in a sustainable way can go hand in hand.

However, some other types of traditional medicine are destructive to wildlife and ecosystems and are bringing many species to the point of extinction. International trade in rhino horns and tiger parts is banned under the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), in response to increasing demand from Asian nations over the past decade, as they have got richer.

This wealth has led to a poaching crisis that has decimated many of these protected populations. Although currently the main driver for poaching tigers and rhinos are the medicinal properties associated with them by traditional medicine, we shouldn’t forget that there are other reasons contributing to the extinction of these species, such as habitat fragmentation and degradation of their environment, which are a consequence of human activity.

Curing a global addiction

Globalisation has increased exponentially the demand for some traditional medicine, also in Europe, with a negative impact upon wildlife. Take the example of the caterpillar fungus (also known as yartsa gunbu or yarshagumba). Originating from Nepal and a key ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine, its ever-growing demand in recent years caused its price to skyrocket, provoking inter-village conflicts (even deaths) over access to the fungus and the near extinction of the fungus in the wild. The cost of a pound of wild caterpillar fungus reached $63,000 in 2019 (about €56,500), making it the most expensive fungus in the world.

Is it worth killing tigers for their bones or rhinos for their horns? Or contributing to the extinction in the wild of the caterpillar fungus or by keeping bears in inhumane conditions to collect their bile? Despite the fact that there is no scientific evidence supporting the effectiveness of bear bile as a cure for cancer, colds, hangovers and more, black bear bile is illegally trafficked as a remedy for these illnesses, fuelling ecosystem destruction and global crime. Studies have even found that substitutes to such remedies made of unendangered plants are more effective, as their active components have been proven to prevent and treat specific diseases.

Users of traditional medicine in Europe have to face up to the reality that many of the ingredients they rely on for their medicinal products are too rare and precious to sacrifice. Many forms of traditional medicine traded in the EU do not comply with nor respect international treaties like the CITES and local legislation that protect wildlife. Animals and plants are poached and harvested every year to satisfy the global demand for various remedies. For instance, more than 20 million sea horses are killed annually to provide a key ingredient for 90 traditional Chinese remedies and medicinal products.

Moreover, the impact of the extinction of individual species is greater than the sum of its parts because of how it impoverishes and destablises ecosystems and threatens global healthcare. While other drivers of global biodiversity loss are land-use change, including through intensified agriculture, pollution, the climate crisis and invasive alien species, the overexploitation of resources, which also includes species that are traded as traditional medicine, also contribute to global biodiversity loss.

The consequences of resource overexploitation for ongoing biodiversity loss and ecological degradation are immense, and have serious implications for global welfare and healthcare. The harvesting of some animal species can result in the spread of zoonotic diseases as the drivers of pandemics are the same as those of the climate and biodiversity crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates the devastating consequences such an outbreak can have on healthcare systems. Moreover, ecological degradation caused by biodiversity loss has wider effects on human health, by reducing the quality of air, soils and water bodies, increasing the risk of illness and decreasing the chances to access proper healthcare.

Users of traditional medicine must become responsible consumers and avoid treatments that are harmful to the Earth, to wildlife and to us. Choose only sustainable products that do not disrupt ecosystems nor result in poaching and illegal harvesting and demand a legal certification for them. Besides, the EU should effectively enforce and reinforce the measures contained in the EU Action Plan against Wildlife Trafficking, which is going to be revised this year, to crack down on these criminal activities in Europe.