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.
Bear Bile Is A Cure-All In Some Traditional Medicine Practices
In China, Vietnam, and South Korea, bile obtained from sun bears and Asiatic black bears is used to treat a variety of conditions, including sore throats, gallstones, and hemorrhoids. There is some evidence that bear bile actually does break up gallstones, but this benefit pales in comparison to the potential drawbacks.
First of all, bile collection involves warehousing the bears in tiny wire cages, where the bile is removed through a wound that's never allowed to heal. This is blatant animal cruelty, and it's inexcusable. Second, the bile can be contaminated with pus, urine, feces, cancer cells, bacteria and antibiotics. Bile poisoning is a real possibility, but it continues to be a high-end, almost luxury product. Finally, the ingredient from bear bile that has actual medicinal value, ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA), can be easily synthesized in a lab without any of the aforementioned ill effects. For these reasons, bear bile extraction is heavily legislated or outright banned.
Seahorses aren't currently listed as being endangered, but with an annual demand of 500 tons of seahorses per year and no trade regulations in sight, a future without seahorses is a possible one. Why is there such heavy demand? Because according to traditional Chinese medicine, seahorses can be used for curing kidney ailments, circulatory problems, and impotence. They can also simply be used as an aphrodisiac.
Despite the lack of scientific proof that seahorses can help with any medical issue, many TCM users swear by it. While it's important to respect the validity of a centuries-old tradition for the people who practice it, it's also important to ensure that seahorses don't go extinct.
Many wild claims have been made about the medicinal power of rhino horns. According to PBS, practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine have used it to cure "fever, rheumatism, gout...snakebites, hallucinations, typhoid, headaches, carbuncles, vomiting, food poisoning, and “devil possession.” The Ancient Greeks thought that the horn could purify water, while the Ancient Persians believed it could detect poisons.
Rhino horns are comprised of mostly keratin, with a small core of calcium and melanin. All of these components can be found outside of rhino horns. There is no evidence that the horns can treat any disease - though keratin can react chemically with some poisons, proving the Ancient Persians at least partially right. That said, there are effective ways to identify poison that don't involve poaching an endangered species. Like most animals whose bodies have been used medicinally, rhinos are sadly on a fast track to extinction.
Shark fin has been used in Asia for centuries for a variety of purposes, including medicinal ones. Often served in soup form, shark fin is said to promote general well-being. It's also said to cure and prevent cancer.
Because humans need to eat to survive, any food can be said to promote general wellbeing. This is especially true if the food is considered a delicacy - if you feel like you're eating something special, you'll have an increased sense of general wellbeing. As to the other claim, there is no evidence that shark fin has a positive impact on cancer, and in fact one study specifically disproved the link between the two. However, because sharks biomagnify toxins, eating fins from sharks that have been exposed to mercury can lead to mercury poisoning, dementia, sterility, and other health problems.
Humans aren't the only ones hurt by the dish. Shark fins are obtained by a cruel process called "finning" where the fins are removed, and the shark is dumped back into the ocean - dead or alive. Also, overfishing has put a huge dent in the shark population. For all of these reasons, many parts of Asia have banned the dish, despite protests from those who prize it.