Wildlife Trade

‘This makes Chinese medicine look bad’: TCM supporters condemn illegal wildlife trade

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Michael Standaert, The Guardian | May 26, 2020

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Supporters and practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine have warned that the discipline is threatened by those who continue to trade in endangered animals.

The small segment of the TCM community that insists on using endangered animal parts in the pharmaceutical side of TCM, ignoring welfare considerations and the idea of respecting biodiversity, could destroy its reputation for good, they argue.

“The balance with nature is a key point [of TCM], and the use of [endangered] animals is against nature,” Dr Lixing Lao, president of the Virginia University of Integrative Medicine, told the Guardian.

“Even in the principles of TCM practice, this is not good,” Lao said, referring to Tang dynasty experts 1,500 years ago who believed 100% of TCM could be derived from plants.

TCM encompasses many things – acupuncture therapies, breathing and physical exercise, eating habits related to particular conditions of the body and a variety of views about how to strike balance within the body, alongside medicinal TCM drugs.

For Lao and others, the path of reform is to abandon the use of parts derived from endangered species such as pangolins, tigers, leopards and rhinos.

The $74bn (£60bn) wildlife trade in China, pointed to as a likely source of Covid-19, has been largely perpetuated by superstition and confusion about the benefits of animal parts.

Until the recent nationwide pause on the wildlife trade, China’s state forestry and grassland administration provided permits to TCM pharmaceutical companies to use animal parts from previous stockpiles or “farmed” wildlife.

But poaching and the illegal trafficking of parts and live animals from protected species across the globe has continued. The parts are sold to companies making either TCM pharmaceuticals – dried and baked pangolin scales, for example, are ground into powder for several treatments – or for products such as tiger and leopard bone wine, advertised as having “TCM qualities”.

“This is not as much a Chinese medicine practitioner issue, it is more the industry, the people who make money,” Lao said. “This makes Chinese medicine look bad. They use our TCM name for their own purpose but we’re innocent.”

Rhino horn and tiger bone were removed from the Chinese Pharmacopoeia, the official listing of what is allowed in TCM, in the 1980s. Wildlife conservation organisation Traffic told the Guardian that it has seen positive direction from within the TCM community in China in recent years to move away from the use of threatened species. Richard Thomas, communications director at Traffic, said: “The issue is very much within the TCM consciousness.”

China’s government and leaders, including President Xi Jinping, have long lauded the benefits of TCM medicines. Xi is firmly behind the idea of combining traditional Chinese and western medicine, and has encouraged the acceleration of research on TCM drugs.

TCM experts such as Lao believe medicinal cures should be used only when absolutely necessary and not overprescribed in the way western pharmaceuticals often are, instead favouring deeper preventive practices to reduce the need for medicine in the first place.

But support for TCM, which was formally approved into the global compendium of medical practices by the World Health Organization last year, may dissipate if the issues at the heart of the wildlife trade – which is linked in many people’s minds to the Covid-19 outbreak and decimation of endangered species – are not addressed.

Big Business

For Xi and much of the country’s leadership, promoting TCM is one of several ways of raising millions out of poverty. By the end of 2020, China’s state council expects the total value of the country’s TCM industry to reach about $420bn, according to a white paper it released four years ago. In China’s TCM capital of Bozhou, Anhui province, the industry is estimated to be worth 109bn yuan ($15bn).

The report also indicated that there were 900 million TCM practitioners in 183 countries, and growing. TCM hospitals and clinics in China recorded a billion visits in 2017 and that number is increasing by about 6% a year.

Separately, a 2017 report from the Chinese Academy of Engineering put the total value of the wildlife industry specifically breeding parts for TCM at 50bn yuan, or about $7bn.

That figure does not take into account the illegal trade in live animals, whole dead animals and animal parts. That number is likely to be many times higher, judging by seizures of animal parts such as pangolin scales, rhino horn and tiger bone.

In February, China’s National People’s Congress put a full ban on any trade in terrestrial wildlife until the country’s Wildlife Protection Law and follow-on regulations around the industry can be fully updated – though the main focus will likely be on bushmeat, with little action expected on products used for TCM and fur or leather.

Moves are also afoot globally to stop all use of endangered wildlife in traditional medicine. Three Chinese NGOs and two global organisations recently proposed that all members of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) support a halt to the use of threatened species in traditional medicine.

The proposal was listed by the IUCN and will go before members for approval or debate in January next year. No timeline for members to adopt any of the language will be available until the text is agreed upon.

“We support the sustainable development of traditional medicine,” Linda Wong, deputy secretary general of the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation, one of the NGOs involved in bringing the proposal forward, told the Guardian. “We strongly disagree with the use of endangered wildlife in traditional medicine, which drives species like the pangolin to extinction,” she said, adding that of 128 motions currently under consideration by the IUCN this year, it is the “most controversial”.

“Recent moves to reopen trade in these products appear very much business-interest driven rather than medicinal-sector driven,” Richard Thomas told the Guardian.

The confusion and mixed signals over what is legal and what is illegal only adds to potential loopholes, many conservation activists claim.

Debbie Banks, tigers and wildlife crime campaign leader at the UK-based Environmental Investigation Agency, said there are still many issues to work out in the text of the IUCN motion, particularly related to “sustainable use” of wildlife and adopting what is known as the FairWild standard for sourcing wild plants and applying it to wildlife.

“There is a risk that advocates for captive breeding of tigers [for example] will use this language to argue that the ‘harvest’ of tigers bred in captivity is sustainable, without taking into account that the trade in captive-bred specimens sustains demand for wild specimens, particularly given consumer preference for wild,” Banks said.

Banks adds that standards meant for plant species can’t simply be applied to the harvesting of wild animal products and reference in the motion should be explicitly stated as applying to plants only.

“We’ve been hoping that lawmakers extend provisions to Chinese medicine under the reforms to the Wildlife Protection Law, as academics and NGOs in China have been proposing,” said Aron White, China specialist at the Environmental Investigation Agency.

“The problem isn’t Chinese medicine per se, it’s the ingredients that are still used that are made from threatened wildlife which could be replaced by herbal or artificial alternatives, as many practitioners already do,” White said.

Bear Bile and Covid-19

Throughout the Covid-19 outbreak, China’s leaders and state-run media have supported the TCM industry, concentrating largely on the benefits of TCM pharmaceuticals as a pillar industry. TCM doctor Zhang Boli, who set up a makeshift hospital where none of the 564 carriers of Covid-19 that he treated with TCM drugs turned into critical cases, was hailed as a success, with state-run media and government officials showering him with praise.

But a recent report in the journal Nature indicated growing calls outside of China for more rigorous clinical trials of TCM products, especially those promoted abroad as Covid-19 treatments. These are often being sent with aid shipments of personal protective equipment.

Outside China, the use of bile extracted from the gall bladders of captive Asiatic black bears as one ingredient in TCM drugs listed by the government as treatment for severe and critical coronavirus cases has been strongly criticised by wildlife groups.

“It really pains me to see that TCM is now using bear bile to treat Covid-19 and the amount used is so tiny,” Grace Gabriel, Asia director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), told the Guardian.

“Why, why do you want to destroy your good name and associate with that?” Gabriel said. “The only conclusion that I can come to, is that the wildlife farming industry [in China] has hijacked TCM’s name.”

Originally from China, Gabriel grew up during the Cultural Revolution and was often able to get medical assistance only from TCM doctors and counts herself as a believer in TCM’s benefits.

“As a Chinese [person] I really respect TCM, and one of the underlying principles is to achieve balance within one’s own body as well as with the outside world,” she said.

China already has alternatives to bear bile that can be used as a substitute in TCM drugs, she said, but the captive breeding industry is so strong they don’t want to see those alternatives promoted.

“The one thing that is missing is education,” Lao said. “We need to educate the public that Chinese medicine emphasises the balance between humans and nature, so we have to respect nature.”

Caption for main photograph: Confiscated remedies and treatments derived from the body parts of tigers, harp seals, lions, rhinos and bears stored at the National Wildlife Property Repository in Denver, Colorado. Some are counterfeit. Photograph: Britta Jaschinski/Photographers Against Wildlife Crime

China offers buyouts to wildlife farmers in response to pandemic

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By Elizabeth Claire Alberts, Mongabay | May 20, 2020

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The Chinese government is offering to buy out animals on wildlife farms, and to help farmers change their agricultural practices, in an effort to reduce the consumption of wild animals. This step could have big implications for the management of wildlife in China in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, experts say.

The novel coronavirus, which has affected more than 82,000 people in China and nearly 5 million people worldwide, is believed to have originated from a wet market selling wildlife in Wuhan, China. On Feb. 24, the Chinese government responded by banning the trade and consumption of wild animals, and on April 9, it released a draft list of animals that could be legally farmed for food and clothing. The majority of listed species were domesticated animals like pigs, cattle and sheep, although it had a separate category for “special livestock” such as reindeer, alpacas and emus that could be farmed for food, and minks, Arctic foxes and raccoon dogs that could be farmed for fur.

Caged bamboo rats. Image by arcibald / Flickr. Photo as published by Mongabay.

Some wild animals may continue to be legally farmed, but the Chinese government will offer payment to farmers of at least 14 wild species , including king ratsnakes (Elaphe carinata), bamboo rats (Rhizomyini spp.), Asian palm civet cats (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus), Chinese muntjac deer (Muntiacus spp.), and Chinese bamboo partridges (Bambusicola thoracicus). The highest level of compensation is allotted for the Chinese muntjac deer — 2,457 yuan ($346) per individual —  while each Chinese bamboo partridge will be bought for 57 yuan ($8).

While this buyout agreement was initially presented to farmers in Hunan and Jiangxi provinces, where the majority of wildlife farming takes place, farmers in other provinces, including Guangdong, Yunnan and Guangxi, are being offered similar deals, according to Steve Blake, China’s chief representative at WildAid.

“There are several thousand wildlife breeding operations in each province, especially in some of the less economically developed provinces in the northeast and southern China,” Blake told Mongabay. “These operations are obviously on varying scales and for different uses, but the numbers are pretty staggering. The industry is valued at tens of billions of dollars annually. The fact that China is moving so quickly to clean up such a vast and complicated industry is really astounding.”

The buyouts aren’t necessarily compulsory, but wildlife farmers will face obligations, according to Peter Li, China policy specialist of the Humane Society International (HSI).

A newly hatched Chinese bamboo partridge. Image by Ishikawa Ken / Flickr. Photo as published by Mongabay.

“Buyout is a way for the breeders to exit the farming which was encouraged by the government,” Li told Mongabay in an email. “If the farmers do not want to accept the buyout arrangements, they are completely free to stop the farming operation by themselves. However, according to the buyout plan, the farmers cannot farm these animals for food any more.”

More species may be added to the buyout plan, which is only in draft form right now, Blake said.

“This first list of 14 species is the first batch of species to be listed for compensation, probably because they are more commonly bred,” he said. “Since it’s listed as ‘the first batch,’ then there should be more to follow.”

Some farmers will lose their livelihoods, but they will receive government assistance to help them transition to growing vegetables, fruits, teas, or herbs for traditional Chinese medicine, or to even farm other animal species like pigs and chickens.

A caged civet cat. Image by Wikimedia Commons. Photo as published by Mongabay.

“Many of these farmers were operating these breeding facilities as local poverty alleviation projects, and so this transition for them into other production is a continuance of these poverty alleviation projects,” Blake said. “These are ongoing and not just a one-time deal. But again, this definitely varies by location, county by county.”

Once the animals are purchased by the government, they face one of three fates, according to HSI. In certain circumstances, they will be released back into the wild, but most animals will be allotted to industries such as zoos and research facilities, or simply culled — and this has animal welfare advocates concerned.

“Culling programs in China and other countries in Asia can also involve truly barbaric methods such as live burial, and so we really hope to see the Chinese authorities mandating against such cruelty,” Li said in a statement. “The wild animal breeding farms and factories facing closure and transition must not sacrifice animal welfare in an effort to implement the new changes.”

There is also a big loophole in the buyout plan: farmers will be able to continue farming wild animals for traditional Chinese medicine, the fur industry or entertainment purposes. In the province of Guangxi, snake farmers, with the help of the government, are already repurposing their animals for the medicine and beauty industries, which will prevent them from having to shut down their farms, according to one news source.

A Chinese muntjac deer. Image by nesihonsu / Flickr. Photo as published by Mongabay.

While the buyout plan leaves room for improvement, both Li and Blake say they believe it can help lead China away from wildlife consumption, and promote better management of wildlife in the country.

“By subsidising wildlife breeders to transition to alternative livelihoods, these provinces are demonstrating global leadership on this issue, which other provinces and countries must now follow,” Li said. “Chinese farmers not only have an opportunity to leave a trade that poses a direct threat to human health — something that can no longer be tolerated in light of COVID — but also to transition to more humane and sustainable livelihoods such as growing plant foods popular in Chinese cuisine.”

“These new regulations provide much needed clarity on what is permissible and improvements to the permitting process,” Blake said. “There has also been notable concern throughout society here for the breeders affected by this, so this compensation scheme is also very important to help them transition industries rather than revert to trying to sell these products illegally.

“The amount of attention and resolve that the government, media, and society in China have paid to the wildlife consumption issue in the wake of this pandemic is unprecedented,” Blake added. “There’s not only much improved policy measures resulting from this, but also I think public perceptions on the need to end some of this risky wildlife consumption is going to be long-lasting.”

Banner image caption: Civet cats. Image by KL Wong / Flickr.