Patented Oriental Medicines Derived From Endangered Species: Their Use in the United States and Canada

Ginette Hemley and Kurt Johnson, Ph.D.

TRAFFIC USA A Division of the World Wildlife Fund
Washington, DC 20037

Browsing the shelves of a traditional oriental medicine shop in San Francisco, Toronto, New York, or Vancouver can be an interesting experience. Among the highly decorated boxes of commercial oriental medicines (also known as “patented” oriental medicines) from China, Korea, and Japan, one can find some unusual items: TRISNAKE ITCH-REMOVING PILLS… FARGELIN FOR PILES… A GOOD REMEDY FOR COLDS… DENDROBIUM MONILIFORME NIGHT SIGHT PILLS… SEA HORSE GENITAL TONIC PILLS… PO YING TAN BABIES PROTECTOR… WOMEN’S PRECIOUS PILLS…

But, behind the unique packaging of these patented medicines a very serious reality emerges — and one that becomes quite apparent by reading the labels. Many of the medicines contain, or purport to contain, parts or products from threatened, endangered, or otherwise protected animal and plant species that are actually illegal to import or sell in the United States. Horns of rhinoceros (Rhinocerotidae) and saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica), bones and penises of tigers (Panthera tigris) and leopards (Panthera pardus), musk secretion from musk deer (Moschus spp.), bile salts from bears (Ursidae), northern fur seal (Otaridae), and the roots of ginseng (Panax spp. and related forms) are some of the most prominent examples of protected species parts and products used in patented oriental medicines available for sale in the United States. These substances, as well as many others, are prohibited from import into and sale in the United States under a number of laws, including the Endangered Species Act, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), and Food and Drug Administration regulations. Nonetheless, millions of these products enter the United States and Canada each year because of lack of sufficient oversight by the Canadian and U.S. Customs Services and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In traditional Chinese medicinal formulas, rhino horn is used to treat high fever, delirium, and convulsions, while tiger bone is believed to be useful in strengthening muscles and bones, especially after a prolonged illness (Bensky and Gamble 1986). Bear gallbladder (bile salts) is used for a variety of ailments ranging from high fevers to hemorrhoids, while musk deer gland secretion is used both internally and topically for poisonous sores and carbuncles. While the actual efficacy of such products is often questioned by western doctors and conservationists, clinical tests have shown that in many cases such medicines do indeed have the desired effects (see Bensky and Gamble, 1986). At the same time, many substitute products are also available (both natural and synthetic), and traditional doctors in Asia are beginning to prescribe these in some cases; if only because of the decreasing availability and increasing price of endangered species products.

Animal and plant substances have been highly valued in the pharmacopeia of Asian medicines since the advent of traditional Chinese medicine more than 4000 years ago. Traditional material medica are used in two ways — in traditional remedies and in “patented” medicines. In traditional treatments, unprocessed (crude) materia medica are mixed according to ancient formulas prescribed by an oriental medical practitioner and are sold over the counter in traditional medicinal shops or pharmacies. In “patented” medicines, materia medica are also combined according to traditional formulations, but they are processed into pills or tablets, are produced in mass quantities in a medicinal factory, and are sold commercially and traded worldwide.

In days long since past, only affluent Asian nobility or rulers could afford to buy genuine wildlife products, and use of rare and exotic species such as bear, tiger, and rhinoceros in traditional oriental medicines was limited. In recent decades, however, the demand for patented oriental medicines appears to have grown substantially. This increase in demand is probably a result of several factors: (1) the growing human populations and affluence of Asian, especially Pacific Rim, countries; (2) the growth of and influx of new immigrants into Asian communities in North America and Europe; (3) the new-found interest of both Asians and non-Asians in self-healing and herbal medicines, including traditional oriental medicines; and (4) the increase in international trade in the last half of the 20th century resulting from new modes of transportation and communication.

The threat to the survival of endangered species long hunted for the use of their body parts in these medicines has become one of the most urgent global conservation issues today. Some species, already under pressure from habitat loss, cannot sustain increased demand which may ultimately lead to the extinction of wild populations. For example, the most recent estimates indicate that fewer than 2,000 black rhinoceros are in east and southern Africa — a 95 percent decline in 20 years, almost entirely due to poaching for the trade of their horns. As few as 4,400 tigers are left in natural habitat, with India, home to the majority of remaining wild tigers, experiencing unprecedented poaching levels because of demand for tiger body parts in China, Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Similarly, populations of saiga antelope, musk deer, and Asian bear species are decreasing rapidly.

Recently, the United States government threatened trade sanctions against Taiwan and China as a result of their continuing trade in rhinoceros and tiger parts. The United States, however, has yet to effectively tackle its own market demand for such patented medicines which are manufactured mostly in China and shipped to the west through Hong Kong.

WWF, through its trade monitoring program, TRAFFIC, has compiled extensive information on the oriental medicinal trade, and has established a database of more than 600 medicines available on the U.S. market. Some of the results of TRAFFIC’s research are disturbing. More than 200 patented oriental medicines from 93 manufacturers contain–or purport to contain–threatened, endangered, or otherwise protected animal or plant species.

Medicinal contents and quality vary, however, and in one recent analysis by the Clark R. Bavin National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory (under the supervision of Dr. Edgard P. Espinoza), no detectable levels were found of musk deer, tiger bone or rhino horn in 25 sample medicines tested which purported to have those ingredients. Although these lab results are encouraging, it must be emphasized that the sample number was small. Furthermore, test sensitivity for the targeted substances was accurate to only 3-5%, permitting quantities below that amount to go undetected. One unpredicted finding of the Forensic Lab was that some patented medicines tested actually contained levels of toxic, inorganic substances — arsenic, mercury, and lead, in particular — that could lead to serious health problems in long-term users.

Much work remains to be done if endangered species like rhinos and tigers are to be saved. Additional market surveys are needed to fully document the scope and magnitude of the trade in wildlife for medicines, especially the use of unprocessed materials in over-the-counter remedies. Enforcement of international wildlife laws, especially Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) regulations, must be implemented to stem the illegal flow of endangered species. Finally, comprehensive public and medical awareness campaigns are needed to reduce demand among Asian and non-Asian communities and encourage the use of substitute products.

To this end, the medical and pharmaceutical communities must share responsibility for being informed, and informing others, of this important social issue concerning medicinals derived from endangered species, and the need to develop and promote alternative substances. Medical practitioners throughout the world wield the greatest influence over what is prescribed, and their decisions can significantly affect conservation outcomes. As professional bridges are built between medical communities in the east and west, WWF and TRAFFIC hope that conservation issues such as the use of medicinals from endangered species will be addressed and culturally-sensitive solutions found.


Bensky, D. and A. Gamble. 1986. Chinese Herbal Medicine: Materia Medica. Eastland Press. Seattle, Washington. 723 pp.

This article has been adapted from one scheduled to appear in an upcoming issue of TRAFFIC USA, the wildlife trade newsletter of WWF-US