New Delhi: The World Health Organisation (WHO) has recognised traditional Chinese remedies that involve use of the body parts of several endangered animals, giving rise to concerns of extinction of these wild animals, particularly in India.
Last month, WHO’s World Health Assembly recognised the use of Traditional Chinese Medicines (TCM) for over 400 conditions in its International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD).
Over 100 countries are estimated to rely on this document in order to set their medical agenda.
While the announcement came as a relief for the proponents of the world’s oldest healthcare tradition who have long campaigned for the mainstreaming of TCM, it has been decried by several international organisations for potentially rubber-stamping trafficking of endangered species across the world.
According to wildlife media major National Geographic, TCM has driven several animals like pangolins, tigers, rhinos on the verge of extinction.
“Growing demand for TCM products has had devastating consequences for many species of wildlife. In some cases, poaching animals to use their body parts for traditional medicine is the primary reason why an animal faces a risk of extinction,” said a National Geographic report.
Speaking to ThePrint, a senior official from the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) said the Government of India could “express its apprehension” regarding the WHO approval internationally.
“This approval basically encourages widespread use of animal products…We haven’t yet seen its impact, but the pressure is bound to go up,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
“But since this is an international issue, MoEF will hold discussions with MEA (Ministry of External Affairs) and then take a call on how to proceed.”
Alarm bells in India
Indians are particularly concerned since environmentalists fear that poaching of endangered species is bound to go up in the aftermath of this international recognition.
“There is no domestic market in India for illegal wildlife products produced from tigers and rhinos,” said an Indian Forest Service (IFS) official who didn’t wish to be identified.
“Yet, there is poaching of these animals… It happens mostly for their demands in countries like China, Thailand etc.”
While the Indian government will continue to implement the Wildlife Protection Act, which prohibits hunting of all kinds, there is going to be pressure since trafficking will go up, the IFS official said.
The official’s concerns have also been corroborated by the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI).
According to a report by the WPSI, “The illicit international demand for big cat skins along with the trade in bones and other body parts for use in traditional Chinese medicine continue to be the main reason for the unrelenting poaching pressure on these endangered cats. There is virtually no market for either skins or body parts of tigers and leopards within India.”
No conclusive data to support effectiveness
It is, however, not just Indian authorities who are worried about the impact of the WHO decision.
In a strongly-worded criticism of the move, US-based magazine Scientific American called the inclusion of TCM in the ICD “an egregious lapse in evidence-based thinking and practice”.
“Data supporting the effectiveness of most traditional remedies are scant, at best,” it added. “In China, traditional medicines are unregulated, and they frequently make people sick rather than curing them.”
According to National Geographic, in addition to massive loss of wildlife, the tradition encourages cruelty and abuse of wildlife as well.
For instance, sun bears and Asiatic black bears are captured from forests or are bred in captivity in order to allow traders to extract bile from their gallbladders. During the process, these bears are kept in tiny cages in captivity — sometimes for their entire lives.
In order to minimise the poaching of animals, there is also a proliferation of government-sanctioned bear and tiger farms for the purpose of manufacturing TMC.
But National Geographic observes that “farming has proven an inadequate solution: evidence has shown that many of the animals on these “farms” are captured from the wild, treated inhumanely, and are often killed to supply the black market for animal body parts”.