Traditional medicine has historical and cultural significance. Used appropriately, it can help its users feel more connected to the rich histories of their culture, and some treatments are legitimately helpful, either due to scientifically verified benefits of some treatments, or due to the power of the placebo effect. However, many traditional medicines use animals and in many ways these prescriptions have hurt or endangered the animals they've used.
Endangered animals used in traditional medicine include tigers, rhinos, pangolins, and more. Unfortunately, some medical practices are causing animals to go extinct because using them for medicine involves killing and consuming them instead of just, for example, using a non-harmful byproduct.
Not only do animals used in alternative medicine suffer, but often there isn't any real scientific evidence that the treatments have medicinal value. In fact, in some cases, as with bear bile taken from bears living in appalling conditions in factory farms, the treatments can be harmful to humans, too.
Maybe leaving some of these traditional treatments in the past will help get animals like tigers and rhinoceroses off of the endangered species list, and will lead to better outcomes for human patients.
- Photo: Tikki Hywood Trust/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 2.0
Pangolins, ketarin-scale covered mammals that live in the hollows of trees, are used in traditional Chinese medicine. According to Nature, dried pangolin scales are:
...roasted, ashed, cooked in oil, butter, vinegar, boy's urine, or roasted with earth or oyster-shells, to cure a variety of ills. Amongst these are excessive nervousness and hysterical crying in children, women possessed by devils and ogres, malarial fever and deafness.
Pangolins are an endangered species, and they're legally protected by national and international law. Despite these laws, an estimated 116,990 to 233,980 pangolins were killed between 2011 and 2013. Because this estimate is based on reports of animal seizure, it could be as low as 10% of the actual pangolin death toll.
The Grevy’s Zebra Is Used To Treat Tuberculosis
Tuberculosis infects 558 per 100,000 people in Kenya, so treating the disease is naturally a high priority. Although the Kenyan government has agreed to provide free tuberculosis care to its citizens, many people wait months for their medication, or end up having to pay despite the promise. This is one factor amongst many that encourage Kenyans to use traditional alternatives to treat the disease.
That said, some traditional methods for treating tuberculosis really aren't doing much to combat it. Traditional healers in Kenya use the zebra's fat and meat to prepare alternative treatments. But unfortunately, there is no evidence that zebra meat does anything besides provide nutrition, and strain the already at-risk population of Grevy's zebras.
Chinese Alligators Are Used To Cure The Common Cold And Cancer
There is no cure for the common cold, and there most likely never will be. Anything that looks like a cure only does because colds go away after about a week no matter what you do. There are approximately 200 different viruses responsible for the sneezing, coughing, and congestion that accompanies colds, and these viruses mutate rapidly.
Despite the near-impossibility of ever curing the common cold, traditional Chinese medicine has a method that some practitioners swear by - eating Chinese alligator meat. For those suffering from a case of the sniffles, this is probably okay - no, it doesn't work, but neither does anything else. The problem arises when people use alligator meat to treat a much more serious disease - cancer.
Like the common cold, cancer is actually many different diseases that are called the same thing. Unlike the common cold, cancer is often fatal if left untreated. That means that cancer patients who substitute proven treatments with alligator meat are far less likely to survive.
The Totoaba's Bladder Is Said To Boost Fertility
The totoaba is an enormous Mexican fish that is prized for its swim bladder, which can sell for up to $10,000. Several Asian cultures use it in a soup called fish maw, which is said to boost fertility. Hint: there's no scientific or medical proof that it actually does that.
The nets that the Mexican fishermen use to catch totoaba are enormous, and sometimes other species get caught in the net. Unfortunately, this includes the rare vaquita porpoise, a species so endangered that there are only about 100 individuals left in the world. Totoabas are endangered too, and the buying and selling of both species is illegal.