Covid-19 has brought the world to its knees, claiming thousands of human lives along the way. So far, genetic analyses have come up short of pinpointing the COVID19 culprit but the new coronavirus is thought to have originated in bats and transmitted to humans via the pangolin in a Wuhan wet market in China, according to reports in The New York Times and Washington Post.
Pangolins, a shy species often referred to as “the scaly anteater,” are prized in China as a delicacy and for the purported medicinal value of their scales, making the animals the most illegally traded mammal on the planet. Eight species of pangolins are found on two continents—Asia and Africa—and all now range from vulnerable to critically endangered.
Friends of Animals (FoA) has written the leaders of the United Nations as well as representative from individual UN member countries, World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and U.S. Sec. of State Michael Pompeo’s office calling for the closure of all wild animal “wet markets” where captured wildlife are sold and consumed (see our op-ed on page 11 that appeared in the New York Daily News) .
Anthony Fauci, the director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who is the nation’s top infectious diseases expert, called for a closure of wet markets.”It just boggles my mind how, when we have so many diseases that emanate out of that unusual human-animal interface, that we don’t just shut it down,” Fauci said.
At press time, China imposed a temporary nationwide ban on the selling and consuming of wildlife, but it didn’t extend the ban to medical use. The healing properties of pangolins remain a widely held belief despite evidence that consuming pangolins can cause ailments. It is one of many animals on the brink of extinction because they are consumed and exploited by an industry peddling their parts for bogus health perks.
As a group that’s been advocating for a plant-based diet for decades, FoA knows all too well this is not the first time the consumption and exploitation of wild and domestic animals has not only hurt their chances of survival, but has led to an outbreak of a zoonotic disease—there was SARS in 2003; H1N1 in 2009; and MERS in 2012, to mention a few. FoA has repeatedly stepped in to help species caught in this dangerous trade.
This winter, FoA’s Wildlife Law Program (WLP) petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to place the giant devil ray on the endangered species list stating that the species is in imminent danger of extinction.
One key reason? Demand for their gill plates for tonics that are marketed as being able to prevent sickness, improve the immune system, enhance blood circulation and fight diseases such as cancer—all despite any solid proof. Their gill plates are marketed under the trade name Peng Yu Sai and are the key ingredient in a tonic medicine that is purported to prevent sickness by improving the immune system and enhancing blood circulation.
However, evidence of its health benefits is lacking as noted in recent interviews with practitioners in Guangzhou, China and Singapore who stated that Peng Yu Sai has no health benefits, WLP’s petition noted. Giant devil rays, the deepest and fastest divers in the ocean who are beloved for their amazing water acrobatics, are mostly found in the Mediterranean Sea and Northeast Atlantic.
Their population has decreased by 50 percent in the past three generations. From bears being farmed for bile to rhino horns and elephant skins ground into powders, threatened and endangered species are caught in an industry peddling their parts for bogus health perks that only benefit the marketer’s pockets. And millions of people across the world are buying into it.
“We do see modern-day snake oil salesmen,” John Scanlon, former secretary general of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) told French media outlet AFP.
FoA has pointed to this problem repeatedly when seeking Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for several species.
“Time is running out. We need to put an end to false claims that there are any medicinal benefits from these animal parts and stop the killing of threatened and endangered animals for ‘medicine,’” said Jennifer Best, assistant legal director of the WLP.
In addition to the giant devil ray, FoA has stepped in to protect other marine mammals who have been exploited for phony health benefits. The scalloped hammerhead shark population was dwindling fast when FoA successfully stepped in to protect the species with a petition to FWS to list them as endangered. They were killed for meat and fins used in shark fin soup. Shark fins have long been used in traditional Eastern medicines and soups that are promoted, without evidence, as helping everything from general well-being to fighting cancer. The soup has become popular in western countries as well after a book titled Sharks Don’t Get Cancer spurred the idea that shark fin could be used as an alternative cancer treatment. The fins have been sold in powder and tablet form as dietary supplements.
The idea that shark fins can help fight cancer has persisted even though several scientific studies found no cancer-fighting benefits. A 2000 report by D.C.-based George Washington University Medical Center said that tumors had been documented in sharks, skates and rays. And in 2010, a study funded by the National Cancer Institute and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that a drug derived from shark cartilage did not improve survival among patients with late-stage lung cancer.
RHINO HORN MYTHS RUN DEEP
The rhino population has also sharply declined as poachers harm and kill them to steal their horns for various “you name it” treatments for ailments ranging from impotence and cancer to gout and fever reduction. Historical mentions of rhino horns, which are comprised of keratin (the same substance as human nails), date back thousands of years, PBS noted in a report for “Nature”. According to the 16th century Chinese pharmacist Li Shi Chen, the horn could also cure snakebites, hallucinations, typhoid, headaches, carbuncles, vomiting, food poisoning, and “devil possession,” PBS reported.
In traditional Chinese medicine, rhino horn has been mixed with other ingredients to treat fevers. But a 1983 pharmacological study by researchers at the Switzerland-based Hoffman–La Roche showed no evidence it works. And in 1990, researchers at Chinese University in Hong Kong found that humans would do as well chewing their fingernails to reduce fevers as they would using rhino horn extracts.
In 1993, China banned the trade in rhino horn (and tiger bone) and their medicinal derivatives to address the threat posed by the commercial trade. The ban included the removal of horns from the official pharmacopeia of China and all manufacturing of it. But belief in its medicinal properties runs deep, despite evidence to the contrary, and the poaching of rhinos for what TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring group, has called “bogus medicinal use” has continued. In recent years, black market dealers have pushed the notion of rhino horns as a luxury item that can cure hangovers, even cancer, according to a 2017 Scientific American investigation.
“Popular Vietnamese websites mix unproved medical claims with luxury sales pitches. Slogans compare rhino horn with ‘a luxury car,’ tout its ability to ‘improve concentration and cure hangovers,’ and trumpet [that] ‘rhino horn with wine’ is the alcoholic drink of millionaires,’’ the article noted.
Save the Rhino population counts show that only about 23,000 rhinos remain on Earth, including just 5,000 black rhinos. In South Africa, where most of the world’s rhinos live, more than a thousand have been killed annually in the past few years, representing an 8,000 percent increase in slayings from about a decade ago. FoA has worked to protect rhinos, sponsoring legislation in New York and Connecticut that would ban trophy imports of their body parts and prohibit the sale and trade of rhino horns in CT.
MARKETERS, MYTHS AND MIRACLE CURES
In recent years, unscrupulous wildlife marketers, forever searching for ways to create new markets, have turned their eye toward giraffes, claiming their bone marrow can cure AIDS in Africa, a report by Phys.org noted. And as the ivory market dries up with countries banning their imports, they have moved to targeting elephants for their skins. The population of elephants— once in the millions—has declined by 90 percent in the past century. Just 350,000 remain in Africa and less than 50,000 in Asia, according to the Great Elephant Census. Asian elephants are listed as endangered and African elephants as threatened under the ESA.
Yet, Asian elephants are being killed and their skins sold to make powdered supplements and beads peddled in regional markets and on the internet as cures for stomach ailments and skin infections, a study by Elephant Family revealed. The skins and products made from them are openly sold in Myanmar as well as Guangdong and Fujian provinces in China, the Elephant Family report found. Asian elephant skins were selling for more than $100 per kg and a skin powder for $425.
“There is little doubt that the skin trade is a major and developing threat to Asian elephants across their range,” Elephant Family said in its 2018 report.
“The crisis poses a greater threat to Asian elephants than the ivory trade. Moreover, this new trend could easily spread to Africa, as has been seen with other species.”
And while Scanlon, of CITES, kept his criticism to marketers who are “promoting certain wildlife products as having properties that have no association with traditional medicine,” endangered and threatened species continue to be tapped for use in some traditional Eastern medicine. In 2018, China startled the world and announced it was overturning its 1993 ban on the use of tiger and rhino parts for medicine and healing, prompting outcries from wildlife advocates, including Kenya’s largest rhino refuge, the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, which stated: “It is a huge step backwards for wildlife conservation. Although these products have no known medicinal value, the re-legalization has been approved for medical use, and will no doubt place these highly endangered animals under ever more intolerable pressure.”
The outcry prompted China to postpone its decision to lift the ban. But recently, the Chinese government announced it is initiating a pilot program for elephant skin pharmaceuticals made from African elephants.
TURNING THE TIDE
As with all these treatments, there are synthetic and herbal medicines that can be used that don’t require killing any wildlife. For example, aspirin works better on fevers than rhino horns. To reduce the market for the wildlife medicinal trade, the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine spearheaded a conservation awareness campaign aimed at traditional medicine practitioners and customers both in the U.S. and China.
“Traditional Chinese medicine has a history of 3,000 years and we have been educating the public for less than 30 years,” Lixin Huang, former president of the college, told Scientific American.
“Therefore, this is an ongoing education.”
With estimated total revenues of more than $22 billion a year from the wildlife trade, traffickers will continue to target vulnerable species. And FoA will continue to fight back, working for protections and educating the public about the dangers posed by the consumption and exploitation of animals.
“There’s no legitimate use for harvesting the body parts of animals to reap revenues for the illicit wildlife trade and profit-hungry pharmaceutical companies. Consumers are being duped and the world’s most vulnerable species are disappearing,’’ said FoA President Priscilla Feral. “We’re committed to ending this trade and living in a world where humans and animals coexist and are not exploited.”