In China, Traditional Remedies for COVID-19 Are Fueling the Wildlife Trade

Thousands of bears, locked in rows of rusty cages so small that they can barely move, stare out through the bars as their bile is drained into containers. Their captors intentionally drill holes into the bears’ gallbladders to collect their bile for a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) known as Tan Re Qing. These bears spend their entire lives, which often last for over 30 years, inside bile farms, which animal activists dub “houses of horror.” Animals Asia estimates that more than 12,000 bears are currently held in facilities like these in China, South Korea, and Vietnam.

In March, China’s National Health Commission (NHC) began recommending Tan Re Qing to treat COVID-19 symptoms. Credible evidence that bear bile helps to treat COVID-19 symptoms does not exist, and according to Clifford Steer, a professor of genetics and medicine at the University of Minnesota, the Tan Re Qing treatment may even worsen patients’ conditions by decreasing their immune responses. Another inclusion on the NHC’s list of TCM treatments for COVID-19 is a pill called Angong Niuhuang Wan, which contains illegally trafficked rhino horn and also has not been proven effective.

As another response to the pandemic, China’s National People’s Congress announced in February measures that ban wet market vendors from selling wildlife, including so-called bushmeat, for direct human consumption. However, the captive breeding of wild animals for use in TCM, and the sale of the resulting products (along with sales of exotic furs and leathers), remains completely legal. Breeding of captive wildlife is and remains widespread in China, despite the recent ban on wildlife sales at wet markets.

The NHC’s Tan Re Qing recommendation shines a light on China’s explicit support for the captive wildlife industry to produce animal-based TCM. Conservationists oppose the captive wildlife industry because raising generations of animals in captivity, in addition to sanctioning cruelty, does nothing to ensure the species’ survival in the wild—born-and-bred captive animals can never be safely released. China policymakers largely ignore the cruel conditions that captive animals endure and falsely claim that breeding animals in captivity reduces their extinction rates. The bear bile in Tan Re Qing is only the most prominent example of a wildlife-based TCM remedy that is sourced from generations of captive animals. Chinese law also permits the captive breeding of pangolins, tigers, musk deer, peacocks, cats, dogs, and rhinos.  

Conservation leaders in China are continuously imploring policymakers to crack down on the captive breeding of wildlife, for TCM remedies and all other uses; captive breeding is indisputably driving the illegal poaching and trading of wild animals. The legal existence of the captive breeding industry makes it easier to pass off poached animal products for ones that have been legally harvested. A 2012 investigation by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a conservation nonprofit organization, in China uncovered a common method among poachers—involving the reuse and counterfeiting of legally-issued government permits—that enables the trafficking of illegal animal products. The commercial sale of tiger parts, for example, is illegal in China, yet tiger breeding and the distribution of their skins and other body parts are exempt from prosecution if the parts are obtained under forestry administration permits, purportedly for educational purposes. This loophole, exploited since the mid-1980s, allows tigers to be continually trafficked into tiger farms, where they are forcibly bred and their parts harvested for profit. In a 2017 investigation, the EIA observed how tiger farms are thinly disguised as conservation-driven amusement parks; a few tigers in these parks perform for tourists while thousands are caged behind the scenes. Up to 6,000 tigers are currently held captive throughout China, while globally fewer than 4,000 tigers remain in the wild—representing a 96 percent population decrease since the start of the 20th century. 

The TCM industry uses, usually ineffectively, many species of both trafficked and captive wildlife. Tigers’ genitals are used as an aphrodisiac, their teeth to treat fevers, and their brains to treat laziness; rhino horns are used as a treatment for fevers and convulsions; shark fins are used to help fight cancer and increase fertility. None of these remedies have been proven medically effective. According to TIME, the “false idea” that TCM ascribes extraordinary health benefits to rare animal parts has become a persistent misconception that is difficult to eradicate. Scientific evidence notwithstanding, TCM products derived from illegally-trafficked wild animals are perceived by some consumers as being more potent than those sourced from captive animals. Aron White, wildlife campaigner for the EIA, confirms that some TCM enthusiasts consider only products containing wild-raised animals to be the “real deal.”

In recent years, TCM’s overall popularity has grown internationally and offerings from its various sects can now be found in more than 180 countries. Under the guise of TCM, wildlife traffickers are plucking many already vulnerable species from their habitats and leading them closer to extinction. The United Nations’ Office on Drugs and Crime identifies TCM’s global growth as a primary cause of the recent large spike in wildlife trafficking. The TCM industry currently exploits 36 vulnerable species—many of which are not protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora—in various ways for their purported medicinal uses. The rising popularity of TCM is driving a proportional increase in demand for wildlife-based remedies. 

Dr. Lixing Lao, President of the Virginia University of Integrative Medicine, and practitioners of reputable TCM state that wildlife traders do not necessarily believe in the supposed healing effects of wildlife-based TCM products; they simply exploit the TCM industry’s popularity and push misinformation for their own profit. While the conservation community decries wildlife-derived TCM for its role in generating demand for endangered species, the medical community emphasizes these animal-based treatments’ lack of proven efficacies. Multiple Chinese nonprofit organizations recently proposed that the International Union for the Conservation of Nature assist with ending Chinese companies’ legal use of endangered species in TCM. Many TCM enthusiasts, both in China and worldwide, openly condemn wildlife-based remedies, which they feel tarnish the practice’s reputation. Some TCM practitioners, including Dr. Lao, believe that the wildlife industry—both legal and illegal—has infiltrated the TCM industry, thus exploiting and damaging the venerable tradition’s global image.

The ready availability of wildlife-based TCM is leading to an increase in misinformation regarding both its historic use in Chinese culture and its effectiveness. According to Dr. Lao, teachings dating back to the Tang dynasty state that TCM treatments should be derived solely from plants, not animals. Modern-day TCM practitioners continue to contradict these teachings by exploiting trafficked and captive wildlife for supposedly medicinal uses. Although the majority of TCM distributors have removed wild animal parts from their pharmacopeia in recent years, many vendors doing business in Asian countries and even online persist in selling remedies derived from animals. 

Wildlife-based TCM may be in the minority of TCM remedies, but the NHC’s recommendation of Tan Re Qing to treat COVID-19 is especially angering to animal activists, given that COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease. Zoonotic diseases are a classification of infectious scourges driven by exploiting animals and their habitats. The ongoing use of ineffective wildlife-based TCM treatments for a virus that was likely unleashed by wildlife exploitation and has escalated into a pandemic, aside from being deeply ironic, puts many human lives at risk while greatly exacerbating the mass species extinction event already underway. Strengthening the scientific link between the current pandemic and wildlife-based TCM, a 2020 microbiology study published by Chinese and German researchers deduces that the Rhinolophus ferrumequinum bat species used in some TCM treatments may be the very one that originally hosted the novel coronavirus before it crossed the species barrier. A TCM formula called Ye Ming Sha is sourced from these bats’ feces to “treat” eye conditions, while their dried body parts are consumed as a supposed detox remedy. Despite China’s ban on the sale of live wild animals (including bats) at food markets, the loophole that allows the trading and handling of bats for TCM poses a serious risk for future zoonotic disease outbreaks. 

The inclusion of Tan Re Qing in the NHC’s medical compendium also raises questions about the agency’s possible motive behind the poorly-timed endorsement. The Chinese government has a history of enforcing government policies that openly favor corporate profits over conservation. China’s so-called Wildlife Protection Law, enacted in 1989, is a misnomer, as it classifies wild animals as a resource to be used for human benefit. Serving to further legitimize the commercial use of wildlife, the law was amended in 2016 to explicitly assert that animals can be used for TCM remedies. The China Wildlife Conservation Association (CWCA), a nongovernmental organization operating under the framework of the China Science Association that is tasked with implementing conservation laws and policies, misleadingly promotes wildlife farming and captive breeding as “animal protection” under China’s Wildlife Protection Law. The CWCA instituted the law’s “protection for human use” clause, which declares that “the state encourages breeding and farming of wildlife animals,” thereby firmly establishing animals as a resource for human utilization. The willingness of the CWCA to promote wildlife products—even during a wildlife-linked viral pandemic—is perhaps less surprising, given that several CWCA board members are executives of TCM companies that sell animal-based remedies. The continuation of China’s policies that value profits over conservation further jeopardize the survival of endangered wildlife. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) joins Chinese policymakers in refusing to unambiguously condemn wildlife-based TCM, despite its risks to global public health. The WHO’s global medical compendium includes TCM but fails to specifically condemn the modality’s use of wild animal parts. Panthera, a global nonprofit organization dedicated to wild cat conservation, in 2019 released a statement expressing concern that the WHO’s equivocation regarding TCM “will be perceived by the global community as a stamp of approval from the United Nations on the overall practice [of TCM], which includes the use of remedies utilizing wild animal parts.” The WHO has since stated that it does not condone the use of wildlife in TCM, but has not specifically excluded wildlife-based TCM from its medical compendium. Key conservation players including the EIA and the Wildlife Conservation Trust join Panthera in expressing fears that wildlife poaching and trafficking syndicates will interpret the WHO’s ambiguity in their own favor. WHO’s failure to unequivocally condemn wildlife-based TCM only makes it easier for wildlife profiteers to traffick animal parts under the guise of sanctioned medical usage. 

While China’s traditional herb-based medicines are popularizing TCM worldwide, wildlife traffickers are simultaneously exploiting the ancient system’s popularity to expand their own market. Wildlife-derived TCM modalities should be vilified by all for their role in harming animals. Whether an animal-derived product is sourced from trafficking or captivity, the ecological impacts are similarly destructive. Though the sale of exotic wildlife in Chinese wet markets is now banned, the wildlife industry, both legal and otherwise, continues to exploit animals through the development and promotion of ineffective treatments for a wide range of medical conditions, including COVID-19 itself. In order to help with slowing the extinction rates of vulnerable wildlife, consumers everywhere must ostracize the wildlife industry and its hijacking of Traditional Chinese Medicine, and policymakers worldwide must explicitly condemn its morbid use of animal parts.