A Fearful Symmetry


Tiger Bone & Rhino Horn: the Destruction of Wildlife for Traditional Chinese Medicine . Ellis, R. 2005 . Island Press , Washington , D.C. 294 pp . $26.95 (hardcover) . ISBN1-55963-532-0 .

Richard Ellis has written a timely book that provides useful background information for understanding a new and rapidly unfolding effort to stem illegal wildlife trade. According to the U.S. Department of State, the annual illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife parts is worth an estimated US$10 billion and is third in revenue only to arms and drug smuggling. In the face of this astounding and unsustainable wildlife trafficking, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES), a major international conservation achievement of the 1970s to control the trade in threatened and endangered species, is in need of serious teeth. The U.S. Government's Coalition against Wildlife Trafficking (CAWT) was launched in 2005 to build a global coalition to “…focus political and public attention on the issue and facilitate action for effective wildlife law enforcement and regional cooperation.” Also in 2005, the ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) agreed to develop a “Regional Action Plan on Trade in Wild Flora and Fauna” and expand the regional wildlife law enforcement network. This is backed up by a grant from U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to the nongovernmental organizations WildAid and TRAFFIC and their local partners to improve the efficiency of wildlife and customs law enforcement officers in the region by providing training, equipment, and improved networking capability.

The use of wildlife parts and products has a long history in Asia, as in most areas of the world. Until recently the largest and fastest growing markets for medicinal products reputed to contain tiger bone were in the United States, Canada, and Western Europe. Several “tiger farmers” in the United States recently have been convicted of raising tigers for their hides and meat. In the past, the cost of products purported to contain wild cat parts was generally beyond the reach of the average person. As Asian economies and individuals accumulated more wealth, the increase in disposable income resulted in these products becoming more affordable.

We do have to ask, though, how much of the illegal trade is being driven by demands for traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) or status-linked exotic foods? In the consumption of these products, the distinction between food and medicine becomes blurred. Many think that whatever is good for you in small amounts is better for you in large amount. So rather than a pinch of tiger bone powder in your wine to treat an ailment, the newly rich indulge in a dinner of tiger penis soup, also a status symbol. Ornamentation also drives this market. Recently, a flourishing market in tiger skins to decorate status clothing of Tibetan horsemen was reported.

Tiger Bone & Rhino Horn has seven chapters that focus on, but are not restricted to, the charismatic megafauna of the chapter titles. In two chapters, “Tyger, Tyger” and “Where Have All the Tigers Gone?” Ellis describes the precarious status of wild tigers and their place in TCM. Unfortunately this book was published before the haunting spectacle of poachers killing the last tigers in India's Sariska Tiger Reserve in late 2004, which was widely reported in 2005, and before the report by the Save The Tiger Fund and its partners, Worldwide Fund for Nature, Wildlife Conservation Society, and the Smithsonian's National Zoo, that wild tigers occupy 40% less habitat in 2006 than they did a decade earlier.

“Suffer the Animals” introduces the use, quantity, and value of wildlife parts in TCM. In “Chinese Medicine, Western Medicine,” Ellis compares the origins, linkages, and development of these medical traditions and introduces the basic tenets of TCM. The use of rhinoceros and narwhal horn in TCM is traced in “Horn of Plenty.” Ellis tries to clarify the myth, which western journalists are so addicted to, of rhinoceros horn as a sexual enhancing substance; it is not. But all parts of an Asian rhinoceros have some role in local folk medicine. In this chapter too, the role of rhinoceros habitat conversion to agriculture and the Yemeni demand for rhinoceros-bone jambiya (dagger) handles, rather than TCM, in driving the illegal market is explored, including the controversial practices of harvesting horn from living rhinoceros and substituting saiga (Saiga tatarica) horn in the TCM market, which was a disaster for the saiga.

In “The Bad News for Bears,” killing of wild bears and the practice of farming bears, usually Asiatic black bears (Ursus thibetanus) so that their bile can be harvested through implanted catheters, is described in detail. Ellis reports that the active ingredient in bear bile, ursodeoxycholic acid, can be synthesized for about 16 cents a pill, but practitioners of TCM prefer to obtain it from bear gall bladders.

In the final chapter, “Tigers, Rhinos, and Bears—Oh My!” Ellis reports that in 1993 the Chinese government published a notice that forbid selling, buying, carrying, or mailing rhinoceros or tiger bone. This declaration has served as a deterrent to an illegal trade, but Ellis somberly reflects on conflicts in values that underlie the title of his book: “The slaughter of rhinos and tigers for the questionable needs of TCM is terrible enough, but it would require a view of humanity far more cynical than mine to see who would encourage poachers as actually wanting to bring about the extinction of the species.”

Poachers kill rhinoceroses and tigers to make money. Extinction is an unintended consequence. I do not think there is anything cynical in this calculus; it is simply the economics of overexploitation driving the march to extinction for rhinoceroses and tigers. Increased purchasing power in Asia has created a substantial demand for imported illegal rhinoceros and tiger parts. The government institutions erected to deter this illegal commercial enterprise in the last 30 years are too weak to deter buyers, traders, or poachers effectively. The extinction of wild rhinoceroses and tigers, which number in the low tens to low hundreds to low thousands of individuals, depending on the species, is inevitable if this cycle continues.