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Will growing demand for traditional Chinese medicine threaten wildlife?

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The growing demand for traditional Chinese medicine throughout the world has inadvertently increased the threat to wildlife. Endangered animals, such as the tiger and rhinoceros, are already facing the pressures of habitat destruction and the trade in skins, horns and furs.

Will growing demand for traditional Chinese medicine threaten wildlife?

The animal most at risk of extinction is the tiger. Long revered in China as a symbol of power and strength, the tiger is still coveted for its medicinal properties. This regard for the majestic animal and its healing abilities is driving the animal to extinction. Only a century ago there were eight kinds of tigers, with over 100,000 wild tigers in the world. Today only five tiger subspecies exist, with fewer than 5,000 wild tigers in the world.

Rhinos face a similar plight. For centuries rhino horn has been used to treat fevers, convulsions, and delirium. But over time the number of rhinos has dwindled. In Asia, only about 2,800 rhinos remain. Even plant life is threatened by increased demand.

Turtles have been used in Chinese traditional medicine to treat a wide variety of ailments and diseases. Despite a lack of scientific evidence demonstrating a causative link between turtle consumption and medicinal benefits, many people in China believe they provide benefits such as maintaining youthful beauty in women and improving sexual function in men. Because of these beliefs and their symbolic importance, turtles have been highly sought after for more than 3,000 years.

What is Chinese traditional medicine?

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) originated in ancient China and has evolved over thousands of years. TCM practitioners use herbal medicines and various mind and body practices, such as acupuncture and tai chi, to treat or prevent health problems. In the United States, people use TCM primarily as a complementary health approach. These herbal medicines use parts from animals and thus leading to wildlife threat.

In May 2017, Beijing announced that it is developing 57 traditional medicine centers this year in countries that are part of its globe-spanning Belt and Road Initiative, like Poland and the United Arab Emirates. In 2017, it grew by 20 percent, fuelled by more than 4,000 traditional-medicine hospitals across the country. Now China is aggressively promoting the practices overseas.

China's exports of traditional Chinese medicine reached $3.6 billion. This year, for the first time, the World Health Organization included details of traditional Chinese medicine in its all-important annual compendium of diseases and health problems.

Chinese medicine growing global

China's growing affluence means that TCM is undergoing a legitimate renaissance, buoyed by government sponsorship as Beijing seeks to boost its global soft power. TCM had an almighty publicity coup when the chemist Tu Youyou won the 2015 Nobel Prize for her wormwood-based malaria treatment. The number of TCM-related papers in Science Citation Index journals has also soared 30-fold to 3,000 annually over the past two decades.

However, not everyone is happy about greater reliance on TCM. Some conservationists worry that the WHO's decision, on top of TCM's growing popularity, may seal the fate of endangered species historically used for traditional curatives-and even send ones not currently threatened into a death spiral because of elevated demand.

Wildlife trafficking- world's fourth profitable criminal trade

With estimated total revenues of up to $23 billion a year, wildlife trafficking is now considered the world's fourth-most-profitable criminal trade after drugs, weapons and human trafficking. Even with China's ivory ban, at least 20,000 elephants are poached each year for their tusks 55 dead elephants a day. More than 7,000 African rhinos have been slaughtered for their horns in the past decade. The rate of poaching for tigers and rhinos has slowed, and the price of rhino horn not long ago almost twice as expensive as gold - has dropped by two-thirds, according to WildAid. But the gains are fragile, the dangers ever-present.

China is the world's largest market for wildlife trafficking, and the United States is second. Consumers in both countries, many of them ignorant of these animals' endangered status, are driving demand for the black market in animal products. As long as people covet the tiger bone and rhino horn in medicines and tonics, and as long as they remain uneducated about suitable alternatives, the decisions of responsible acupuncturists won't be enough to save these animals.

Despite, international efforts to protect endangered animals are often not supported by domestic legislation and enforcement, so trafficking hot spots continue to boom.

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