Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department (C&ED) have the unenviable job of policing the flow of goods into and out of one of the world’s biggest trading hubs – Hong Kong. The city is home to one of the busiest airports and container terminals in the world, handling millions of tonnes of goods every year, including live animals and wildlife products.
Wildlife trafficking is alive and well as record breaking seizures continue to show
The department regularly seizes contraband amounting to billions of dollars annually. In recent months its actions have continued to highlight the increasing illegal trade in wildlife, with records seizures including 160kg of the critically endangered fish, the Totoaba, worth an estimated HK$25 million (US$ 3.2million). Not only did this seizure in early June break records in volume and value, but it was the first time fresh maws had been seized.
Just weeks before in May, C&ED seized 34 tonnes of imported American ginseng (Xi Yang Shen) worth about HK$47million (US$6 million), in what Hong Kong authorities indicated was the largest bust of its type for a decade. A month later in early June, another 17 tonnes was seized.
Notably, the value and nature of such seizures gives more credence to NGO claims that Hong Kong needs to treat wildlife crime as Serious and Organised Crime, and in doing so, to place relevant offences under the Organised and Serious Crimes Ordinance (OSCO).
These seizures, have two things in common: both include threatened species regulated via the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES); and both involve species that are in high demand for use in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).
American ginseng, which is considered endangered in parts of the US and Canada, is used widely to treat a range of ills including respiratory issues, erectile dysfunction and low blood sugar.
The Totoaba‘s swim bladder is also used, reportedly to treat a variety of illnesses, including arthritis, fertility and circulatory problems. Despite little evidence of its efficacy, demand for the Totaba’s swim bladder is pushing the species to the brink of extinction. The Totoaba trade has also been catastrophic for the world’s smallest porpoise, the vaquita, which, as a result of being caught in the nets of illegal traders, has seen its population plummet to less than 15.
TCM – Never the Twain shall meet
The use of wildlife (especially animals and endangered species of both plants and animals), as ingredients in TCM has long been a controversial subject, with the ‘for’ and ‘against’ camps diametrically opposed.
Those against, point to the philosophy behind TCM. That it is based on harmony in nature and balance, as opposed to exploitation of species to the point of extinction. That there is little science and even history behind the use of many species and that those who benefit the most, are not sick patients but an increasingly wealthy industry that has profited from plundering our natural resources.
Those for, highlight the medicinal properties and healing powers of combining natural ingredients based on years of tradition and the work of masters. That such powerful medicines can through balancing the body, work to successfully treat an exhaustive list of ills.
Worryingly, the Beijing municipality recently indicated, albeit in a somewhat vague statement that ‘No organisation or individual may make false or exaggerated propaganda to Chinese medicine; they may not use the name of Chinese medicine to gain illegitimate interests or harm public interests; they may not defame or slander Chinese medicine in any way or behaviour.
Such a proclamation would appear on the face of it, to show that the authorities are behind the industry and will not tolerate those who question it.
However, in another recent development, the Chinese Pangolin has been removed from the latest edition of the Chinese Pharmacopeia (the government recognised compendium of TCM ingredients and treatments).
This unfortunate creature has been endlessly pursued largely for its scales for use in TCM, to the point of functional extinction. It is hoped that such an amendment will mean that pangolin scales can no longer be used legitimately in TCM in China. This is good news, not just for the Chinese Pangolin, but all other seven species found in parts of Asia and Africa.
And while those ‘for’ and those ‘against’ the use of wildlife in TCM have struggled to find common ground, one thing is clear – our use and treatment of wildlife has caused multiple zoonotic disease outbreaks in recent years.
Rethinking our relationship with wildlife
Today such an outbreak has caused the global economy to all but collapse. Conservatively, at the time of writing, over 8 million people are known to have been infected with COVID-19, leaving over 435,000 deaths in its wake. Can there be any stronger argument to question the use of wildlife, specifically the use of animals, in TCM?
Put simply, how can an industry that aims to preserve life, support certain practices that have the potential to destroy it on the unparalleled scale we are seeing today?