Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Traditional Asian Medicine is Killing Off Endangered Species

I doubt you know a single person who would be against adding a new medicine to our arsenal against disease that literally grew on trees (or some other living thing) and was therefore cheap, and was also safe and effective. But what if those trees were rare, and disappearing? And what if (even worse) that medicine had never been shown to work? Shouldn't this be a core cause for skeptics?

You're no doubt already familiar with the many hang-ups about nutritional and medical practices so we don't have to recapitulate them here. the point is that acting irrationally and without evidence becomes a moral issue when people spread baseless misinformation that may harm another person's health (or just demand public money and special protection). And it's really bad when it destroys members of near-extinct species. There's a piece in the journal Nature that gives statistics about the toll that traditional Asian medicine has taken on rhinos and tigers, among others.

[Click here to embiggen the figure.] 500 black rhino horns per year are entering the market, out of a remaining population of less than 10,000. Even assuming this is the only reason that these animals are still being hunted, and of course it isn't, then in 20 years black rhinos will be extinct in the wild. The vast majority of the rhino horn and tiger bone powder is going to one country: China.

To be clear, most traditional Asian medicine does not involve endangered animal potions; most of it is woo that can only harm by inaction. But if we care about conservation, then the time is past for pretending that tolerating these kinds of cultural practices won't shortly result in extinction for many of these animals. It doesn't matter if it's
"traditional", or if someone is offended that science is trying to evaluate its claims, or we wouldn't understand because we're not the right religion/ethnic group/social class etc. (By the way, that siren you're hearing is your "shielding claim from rational inquiry" alarm.)

I sincerely hope skeptics start paying more attention to this issue, because in the case of this particular flavor of medical woo, more harm is being done aside from just not getting real medicine to sick patients. The truth will win out, but it's slow - probably too slow for the black rhino. I'd like to think there's something that can be done immediately, like wildlife authorities flooding the market with fake rhino horn and tiger bone.

Graham-Rowe D. Biodiversity: Endangered and in demand. Nature. 2011 Dec 21;480(7378):S101-3.

1 comment:

dbonfitto said...

Bah. Fight fire with fire.

Treat the rhinos and tigers with tincture of powdered traditional Asian medicine practitioners!