While fans and satisfied patients cheered last month when traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) won World Health Organization approval for treatment of 400 illnesses, the move could pose a significant threat to endangered species globally.

Environmentalists and conservationists have decried the action as they believe that several wildlife species are particularly at risk in India. TCM includes medicines formulated from animal ingredients. It uses small or big parts of various animals – such as the tiger, Asiatic black bear, Indian pangolin, one-horn rhinoceros and Saiga antelope, among others.

These species are already listed as either “threatened”’ or “endangered,” according to the International Union of Conservation of Nature  list. Notably, the criticism is not for use of traditional medicines generally, but for specific medicinal practices that involve use of animal body parts.

What has WHO done?

On May 25, in Geneva, member states of the World Health Assembly of the WHO agreed to adopt the 11th revision of the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD – 11), which will come into effect from January 1, 2022.

The ICD is the foundation for the identification of health trends and statistics globally, and the international standard for reporting diseases and health conditions. It is the diagnostic classification standard for all clinical and research purposes and defines the universe of diseases, disorders, injuries and other related health conditions.

The Indian one-horned rhino’s natural habitat spreads across North and North-East India and Nepal. Photo: Wikipedia


The ‘WHO traditional medicine strategy: 2014-2023’  states that “many countries have their own traditional or indigenous forms of healing which are firmly rooted in their culture and history. Some forms of traditional medicine such as Ayurveda, TCM and Unani medicine are popular nationally and globally. At the same time, some forms of ‘Complementary Medicine’ such as anthroposophic medicine, chiropractic, homeopathy, naturopathy and osteopathy are also in extensive use.”

Environmentalists concerned

“We already know that TCM uses animal products, such as rhino horns, pangolin scales and so on,” Parveen Kaswan, a conservationist and an Indian Forest Service official told Asia Times. “Recognizing that as a legitimate thing will certainly increase their demand. After all that is the very purpose behind recognition of such ancient medicines.

“We cannot quantify the increase in pressure on these products,” he said, but “obviously the whole process will increase illegal wildlife trade.”

The Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) has been working with the Indian government’s enforcement agencies to apprehend tiger and leopard poachers and traders in India. The society in January 2017 came out with ‘Tiger and Leopard Poaching Statistics,” which documented cases from 1994 to 2016.

According to the data, as many as 1,110 tigers and 4,381 leopards were killed by poachers in India from 1994 to 2016. Most of those were destined to become ingredients in TCM, Indian officials believe.

It report stated, “These documented cases must represent only a fraction of the actual poaching and trade in tiger and leopard parts in India. To reach an idea of the magnitude of the poaching of these species in India, it may be noted that the Customs authorities multiply known offenses by ten to estimate the size of an illegal trade.”

The report pointed out that, while there is virtually no market for tiger skins or body parts in India, the combination of the illicit international demand for big cat skins along with the trade in bones and other body parts for use in TCM continues to be the main reason for the unrelenting poaching pressure on these endangered cats. In other words, it’s all for export.

In central India, tigers are most vulnerable. In the north-east Indian state of Assam, the one-horned rhino and elephant are in trouble.

Porous borders

Rajendra Agarwala, former chief wildlife warden of the state of Assam, said that due to the vulnerability of the one-horned rhino, anti-poaching measures are very strong in his state. “One-horned rhinos are poached for their horn, which has a much higher value in China and Hong Kong. It is used in medicines and specifically as an aphrodisiac. Another highly vulnerable species from Assam is elephant poached for its tusks.”

“Any and every kind of hunting is banned in India,” Soumitra Das Gupta, an inspector general at India’s Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change, told Asia Times. “Our Wildlife Crime Control Bureau team has effectively managed to keep tabs on large-scale poaching and trafficking incidents but there can be sporadic instances here and there.”

He pointed to the latest seizure by the bureau when officials rescued a lion cub and three exotic monkeys from traffickers in Kolkata, West Bengal.

However, most of the poaching happens with the knowledge of and sometimes involvement of local communities in and around the habitats. Keeping that in mind, the government has also launched an outreach program targeting local communities. Non-profits and wildlife experts have been enlisted to aid the government in its efforts to curb wildlife trafficking.

“The northeastern states have a porous border with Bangladesh and Myanmar, and hence, what is needed is state-to-state coordination along with state-center coordination,” Agarwala said. But it is not just about states and the center, he said. Rather, all South Asian countries need coordinated efforts.

India’s neighbors are also vulnerable as wildlife traffickers continue to slip across international borders even though officials insist they have sealed the borders. For instance, the Indian pangolin, indigenous to Pakistan, too, is rampantly killed for its scales, which are used in TCMs. According to a report from Pakistan last week, “pangolin scales fetched US$3,000 per 20 kg in the Chinese market, more than the average Pakistani’s annual income. This makes it hard to enforce laws designed to stop the illegal trade.”

As reported by environmental news website Mongabay, the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau of India has profiled 1,882 criminals involved in wildlife-associated offenses and listed them in a real-time database for combating trans-boundary environmental crime.

Still, experts worry that the encouragement the prime global health body has given to TCM, will sound the death knell for many endangered animals in the Indian sub-continent.