Traditional Chinese medicines may ‘save some of most endangered animals on Earth’

QUEENSLAND, Australia — When it comes to helping endangered species avoid extinction, we often think of ways to help the environment above all else. Interestingly, traditional Chinese medicines can help save some of the most endangered animals on the planet, suggests a new study. Researchers at the University of Queensland say that demystifying ancient Chinese remedies for conservationists could be the key to better protecting species facing extinction such as tigers, pangolins and rhino.

Current efforts to shift entrenched values and beliefs about Chinese medicine are not achieving conservation gains in the short term, the research team says. They believe that a better understanding of traditional practices is critical for conservationists to form more effective strategies.

Chinese medicine
Traditional Chinese medicine utilises a variety of ingredients derived from plants, animals and fungi. Some of these come from threatened species, like these horns of critically endangered saiga antelope. (Photo credit: University of Queensland)

“The use of endangered species in traditional Chinese medicine threatens species’ survival and is a challenge for conservationists, says Hubert Cheung, a PhD candidate at the university, in a statement. “Pushing messages of inefficacy, providing various forms of scientific evidence or promoting biomedical alternatives doesn’t seem to be drastically influencing decisions and behaviors. And, although many practices and treatments continue to be criticised for lacking scientific support, the World Health Organisation approved the inclusion of traditional Chinese medicine in its global compendium of medical practices last year.

“The challenge now is for conservationists to work proactively with practitioners and others in the industry to find sustainable solutions,” Cheung adds. “However, most conservation scientists and organisations are unfamiliar with traditional Chinese medicine, which makes it difficult to devise effective and culturally-nuanced interventions.”

‘Better understanding of Chinese medicine will empower conservationists’

The researchers examined the core theories and practices of traditional Chinese medicine, in a bid to make it more accessible. They hope their study will influence policy and campaigning.

“Today, traditional Chinese medicine is formally integrated into China’s healthcare system, and has been central to China’s response to the ongoing pandemic,” explains Cheung. “In fact, the Chinese government’s Covid-19 clinical guidance has included recommendations for the use of a product containing bear bile, which has raised concerns among conservation groups.”

Professor Hugh Possingham, also of Queensland University, says traditional Chinese medicine was now not only entrenched in the social and cultural fabric of Chinese society, but also gaining users elsewhere.

“A better understanding of traditional Chinese medicine will empower conservationists to engage more constructively with stakeholders in this space,” he says. “We’re hoping that this work can help all parties develop more effective and lasting solutions for species threatened by medicinal use.”

SWNS writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.