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Killing of Endangered Animals Continues for Usage in Traditional Medicine and Bogus Remedies

Since HerbalGram’s 2010 exposé on the usage of endangered animals in cultural healing systems and the botanicals that can replace tiger bone wines and bear bile soups,1 some nonprofit organizations and a few countries’ governments have made progress toward realizing the end of this heinous situation. But the outlook for most involved species, unfortunately, remains bleak and uncertain, as apparent in the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) December 2012 announcement that the illegal trade of wildlife has become the “fourth largest illegal global trade, after narcotics, counterfeiting, and human trafficking.”2


Tigers most often are killed for their bones, which are used in various remedies, and other tiger parts also are used medicinally, including the blood, penis, tail, and eyes.Although tiger-based tonics, wine, and other products are used much less commonly now than they were throughout their long history in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the trade in illegal tiger parts continues and the challenges faced by these revered cat species remain serious.

“It’s difficult to say with certainty whether the situation [for tigers] has improved or got worse, but one thing we can say with certainty is that the trade is certainly ongoing,” said Richard Thomas, communications coordinator of TRAFFIC International (email, March 27, 2013).

Since the 2010 HerbalGram piece was published, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has continued to classify tigers as endangered, as they have been since 1986.WWF recently announced that tiger populations are further decreasing, and poaching for tiger body parts — most often destined for China — is their primary threat.3,4 In March 2013, TRAFFIC issued an updated report on the illegal tiger trade, noting that at least 1,425 tiger carcasses and body parts were seized by officials during the last decade.5

“There are an estimated 3,200 tigers left in the wild today and in most places where tigers live, the population remains in jeopardy,” said Barney Long, WWF’s Asian species expert (email, January 24, 2013). “Destinations for tiger parts differ based on the product. For example, there is demand coming from Chinese Tibet for skins and pelts; demand from China and Vietnam for tiger bone, etc. In recent years, the largest factor contributing to the illegal trade of tiger parts is their status symbol value in China and Vietnam, which is driving their use in tonic wines and as exotic meats.”

Although more than a dozen botanical alternatives to tiger remedies have been identified and encouraged in the past — including Chinese clematis (Clematis chinensis, Ranunculaceae) root and rhizome, pubescent angelica (Angelica pubescens, Apiaceae) root, dong quai (A. sinensis) root, and Sichuan lovage (‘Chuanxiong’; Ligusticum sinense, Apiaceae) rhizome, among others1 most current efforts focus on enhancing law enforcement in countries of concern, as well as repopulating wild tiger populations.

Unfortunately, in February 2013, the nonprofit Environmental Investigation Agency released a report claiming that the Chinese government is quietly fueling domestic trade in tiger parts, and — despite the country’s 1993 ban on tiger medicinal products — the federal government has issued “secret” notices to traders that encouraged the production of wine made from the bones of tigers from Chinese tiger farms, which reportedly house 5,000 to 6,000 tigers as of early 2013.6


Bear bile contains high levels of the anti-inflammatory compound ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA), and it has been used medicinally in TCM for many years.Due to increased awareness of the cruel way in which bile is harvested from the gallbladders of live bears — that are often kept in inhumane conditions on overcrowded, filthy bear farms — its usage in TCM has decreased somewhat. However, bear bile is increasingly being sold for non-scientific and non-traditional uses in unregulated shops and markets, in addition to being given as an expensive gift to represent wealth or status. 

“Bear bile, historically, has been used in limited amounts for specific diseases and illnesses, and nothing could be further from the truth of how it’s exploited and sold today,” said Jill Robinson, founder and CEO of Animals Asia, an animal welfare organization (oral communication, January 27, 2013). “In Vietnam, for example, we’ve been picking up bile that originated in China and is being sold as hangover cures. It’s also being sold in wines and tonics and, despite the fact that every farmed and extracted bear has contaminated bile, it continues to be ingested by people who are persuaded by the farmers that it can cure a multitude of ills.”

Still, the situation for bears, according to Robinson, is improving. In January 2013, Animals Asia won its fight against a pending eviction from the Vietnam Bear Rescue Centre in Tam Dao National Park, which is home to many bears that the organization saves from farms and the chain of illegal trade.

“Vietnam,” said Robinson, “has seen some quite interesting developments in that the official government figure there has reduced the number of bears, from an estimated 4,000 on the farms to about 2,400. So the numbers are coming down on the farms and that gives us a lot of confidence in the work that we’re doing.” 

But, Robinson also recognized that the number of farmed bears in China is increasing. “China is at the heart of this industry; there is no question about it,” she said. The Chinese public, however, is learning more about the cruelties of the bear bile trade and also is speaking out against it more frequently. According to Robinson, “bear farming” was one of the top 10 most-discussed topics in China in 2012, and at one point was the second most-searched term on the Chinese Internet. And more and more celebrities are endorsing the anti-bear-farming cause, she said, in addition to a new documentary film that went viral in China. 

“What we’ve seen in China in the last year is unprecedented outrage across the country,” said Robinson. “I’ve never seen anything like this in 20 years of campaigning against bear farming. And it gives us a lot of confidence that we’re turning a corner.”

In May 2013, The New York Times reported that vehement protests in China recently resulted in the withdraw of a Shenzhen Stock Exchange application by Guizhentang Pharmaceutical, the country's largest bear bile extract manufacturer.7

Animals Asia recently launched its “Healing Without Harm” campaign, which has successfully convinced about 140 TCM pharmacies to stop selling, stocking, and prescribing bear bile. In the next year, the organization will continue to focus on these efforts, and is expecting more pharmacies, including some large chain businesses, to join in taking the pledge. Futhermore, Professor Yibin Feng of the University of Hong Kong — who conducted research in 2009 on botanicals to replace bear bile — will soon disseminate informational documents on the medicinal efficacy of plants in the goldthread genus (Coptis spp., Ranunculaceae), an antibacterial, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, and anti-hypertensive herb that is a promising alternative to bear bile.


For thousands of years, the keratin-rich horn of the rhino has been a common TCM treatment for numerous conditions, including fever, convulsions, and hemorrhaging.Although alternatives to rhino horn have been encouraged, poaching of rhinos has only escalated. The South African government announced that poachers killed a record 668 rhinos in 2012, 50 percent more than the 448 rhinos killed in 2011, and significantly more than the 13 rhinos killed in 2007.More than 500 rhinos already had been killed in the first seven months of 2013.9 Rhino poaching also has increased in other African countries, such as Kenya, as well as in some parts of India — where officials estimate one average-sized horn yields $90,000 to $100,000.10 

“We can say with absolute certainty that the last three years have been getting progressively worse [for the rhino],” said Thomas of TRAFFIC.

“We’re dismayed, obviously; we’re very upset,” added Susie Ellis, executive director of the International Rhino Foundation (IRF). “Again, the root cause is essentially the same and the primary reason behind it seems to be that there is an emerging market in Vietnam, where rhino horn is purported to be a cancer cure. But it is also emerging as a high-value gift that people give one another. It’s not used decoratively; it’s just used for medicinal purposes. It’s also being used as a hangover cure in Vietnam. These are new uses” (oral communication, January 23, 2013).

Ellis noted that the demand for rhino horn also is present in China, where she said the use of it is ongoing and not showing signs of decreasing. Ellis purported that the current Asian demand partly stems from the increasing Asian presence in Africa, where Chinese companies are being awarded construction and infrastructure contracts. 

Perhaps a greater cause for the demand, Ellis continued, is the strong cultural belief in these remedies in Vietnam, China, and other Asian countries, where rhino horn is available for sale whole over-the-counter and ground-up in prepared remedies. Thomas of TRAFFIC added, “It’s important to stress that the horns are not in demand for traditional medicine — they are being sought for new uses; in Viet Nam ground horn is used as a body detoxifier — essentially a hangover cure, also given as a high value gift, and to some extent also used as a supposed (though medically unsupported) cancer cure. The traditional, centuries-old use of rhino horn is in a concoction used to treat high fever.”

IRF and other groups are planning to implement an education campaign in Vietnam informing the public that these remedies are baseless and have no scientific support. Additional conservation and wildlife groups have been trying to quell poaching through the dispersion of a similar message. The theme of 2011’s World Rhino Day, for example, was “Rhino Horn is Not Medicine,” and at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) meeting in early March 2013, Thomas said, “countries were instructed to develop strategies to reduce the demand for rhino horn. This would naturally include the promotion of alternatives to the use of horn as well as more frequently employed measures such as stronger penalties for those caught trafficking, etc.”

Ellis also noted the importance of educating the public that real animals are being killed.

“There’s not much wildlife left in Vietnam, for example, and I’m not sure that the end-user always knows that [the remedy] even comes from a live animal that was killed,” she said. “The majority of rhinos are killed with AK-47s. Some of the more sophisticated poachers are coming in and — obviously have the involvement of veterinarians — with helicopters and are darting the animals with drugs. But, by and large, they’re so interested in getting every single shred of horn that they hack down into the animal’s skull. They bleed to death; they die from trauma and shock. Occasionally they live, but only one or two actually survived more than a few days.”

Because it is very difficult to address the deep, cultural root of the problem, however, Ellis’s organization and others largely focus on deterring and preventing poaching, as well encouraging local authorities to punish those involved with poaching. 

Future Outlook

Offering hope for the future of these beloved animal species is the increasing presence and awareness that illegal wildlife trafficking is obtaining among charity groups, the media, and public and government officials. Several wildlife groups are taking action to address the overall situation, such as TRAFFIC’s distribution of educational wildlife crime kits to customs officials in Southeast Asian countries.11 Robinson of Animals Asia emphasized the important role that the public has to play, especially by contacting relevant authorities, as well as the media in the United States and in China.

“Please, please to anyone reading [this] article that is remotely interested and wants to help,” she said, “don’t underestimate the power of your pen and how much you can help. Please, please, keep raising it.”

Recent journal articles suggest interest in using DNA testing to detect the presence of endangered animal species in Chinese medicines. A February 2013 article published in PLoS One, for example, discussed the use of DNA barcoding to successfully identify endangered Saiga antelope and Sika deer particles in known animal-based products.12 According to the Chinese authors, “… We believe that the identification (DNA barcoding) of threatened animals combined with seeking substitutions (bio-response) can yet be regarded as a valid strategy for establishing a balance between the protection of threatened animals and the development of traditional medicine.”

A similar paper, published in PLoS Genetics in 2012, details DNA testing that revealed Asiatic black bear and other threatened animals in TCM samples, substances that “were rarely declared on the product packaging.”13 High-throughput sequencing of DNA, the Australian authors wrote, could be a cost-effective and efficient way to screen TCM products, especially when genetic reference databases become better established. 

Still, the situation remains complex and is far from being solved, especially considering the large role played by unregulated shops and markets that sell remedies for uses with no scientific or traditional support. And the problem touches many animals in addition to the species covered in this article; pangolins (a small, scale-covered Asian mammal), the most commonly traded mammal — two species of which are endangered — are killed for their scales and blood;14 manta rays are killed for their gills that are bogusly purported to treat cancer, chickenpox, and suppressed immune systems.15 The list goes on and on.

Thomas said he thinks the key to seeing a significant improvement is to address possibly the most difficult aspect of the situation: reduce demand for the endangered wildlife products in the first place.

“Close that down,” he said, “and you take away the reason to source and supply it. There needs to be a coordinated strategy, ranging from simple public awareness raising of the impacts the demand is causing; more information about what the actual rather than perceived medicinal benefits of the product; what legal, cheaper, effective alternatives may exist, etc. Such activities should be focused in user groups/destination countries. Alongside there should be other measures, such as higher penalties, stronger monitoring, and enforcement to reduce or curtail the supply of the product. These should be applied across the entire trade chain — from source to end user.”

—Lindsay Stafford Mader


1. Cavaliere C. Medicinal use of threatened animal species and the search for botanical alternatives. HerbalGram. 2010;86:34-49. Available at:

2. Illegal wildlife trade threatens national security, says WWF report [press release]. New York, NY: World Wildlife Fund; December 12, 2012. Available at: Accessed January 18, 2013. 

3.  Panthera tigris. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2012.2. Available at: Accessed November 26, 2012. 

4. Poaching still biggest threat to recovery of world’s tiger populations. World Wildlife Fund website. November 23, 2012. Available at: Accessed January 18, 2013. 

5. New study reveals scale of persistent illegal tiger trade [press release]. Bangkok, Thailand: TRAFFIC; March 7, 2013. Available at: Accessed March 15, 2013.

6. Hidden in Plain Sight: China’s Clandestine Tiger Trade. Environmental Investigation Agency. February 2013. Available at: Accessed March 28, 2013.

7. Jacobs A. Folk remedy extracted from captive bears stirs furor in China. New York Times. May 21, 2013. Available at: Accessed July 31, 2013.

8.  Rhino poaching toll reaches new high [press release]. Cape Town, South Africa: TRAFFIC; January 10, 2013. Available at: Accessed January 11, 2013.   

9. South Africa rhino toll tops 500 in 2013 [press release]. Johannesburg, South Africa: TRAFFIC; July 26, 2013. Available at: Accessed July 31, 2013.

10. Bhaumik S. Spike in rhinoceros deaths worries India. December 15, 2012. Available at: Accessed January 29, 2013.  

11. Wildlife crime-fighting training package for ASEAN customs officers [press release]. Bangkok, Thailand: TRAFFIC; March 8, 2013. Available at: Accessed March 15, 2013.

12. Yan D, Luo JY, Han YM, Peng C, Dong XP, Chen SL, Sun LG, Xiao XH. Forensic DNA barcoding and bio-response studies of animal horn products used in traditional medicine. PLoS One. 2013;8(2):e55854. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0055854. Epub 2013 Feb 8.

13. Coghlan ML, Haile J, Houston J, Murray DC, White NE, Moolhuijzen P, Bellgard MI, Bunce M. Deep sequencing of plant and animal DNA contained within traditional Chinese medicines reveals legality issues and health safety concerns. PLoS Genet. 2012;8(4):e1002657. doi: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1002657. Epub 2012 Apr 12.

14. Hance J. Pity the pangolin: little-known mammal most common victim of the wildlife trade. February 11, 2013. Available at: Accessed March 28, 2013.

15. Hooper R. Glider of the sea threatened by ‘traditional’ medicine. New Scientist. March 25, 2013. Available at: March 28, 2013.