Monday, February 3, 2014

Animals in traditional medicine

The use of threatened animals as a source of traditional medicines is accelerating the extinction of such species and imposes great challenges to animal conservation. In this study, we propose a feasible strategy for the conservation of threatened medicinal animals that combines trade monitoring and the search for substitutes. First, DNA barcoding provides a powerful technique for monitoring the trade of animal species, which helps in restricting the excessive use and illegal trade of such species. Second, pharmacological tests have been adopted to evaluate the biological equivalence of threatened and domestic animals; based on such testing, potential substitutes are recommended. Based on a review of threatened animal species and their substitutes, we find that the search for substitutes deserves special attention; however, this work is far from complete. These results may be of great value for the conservation of threatened animals and maintaining the heritage of traditional medicine.

This is the abstract of a new publication in Scientific Reports that introduces a study done by  a group of Chinese researchers.

Animal products play an important role in traditional medicine within countries such as China, Japan, or Brazil. There is no doubt that quite a few animal species are becoming threatened or endangered due to their excessive use as complementary medicine. Next to no measures have been proposed for the sustainable development of traditional medicine. As a consequence many conservational efforts encountered great resistance as they supposedly disregarded the traditional use of wildlife in medicine. The authors claim that a feasible solution would be to substitute the organs of closely related domestic animals and their study not only establishes DNA Barcoding as primary identification tool in the trade but also examines the medicinal values of potential substitutes. They conducted pharmacological tests on animal-derived drugs obtained from both threatened and domestic animals, and compared resulting bioactivities both in vitro and in vivo. 

Those are great intentions and it would be commendable if this would become a line of applied research that is pursued more often. However, there are also some sobering facts: ...studies of the substitution of threatened animal species have just begun, and many critically endangered species, such as Père David's deer, saiga antelope and hawksbill turtle, cannot be substituted and have no alternative uses. ...The use of substitutes not only relates to the bioactivities of these drugs, it also involves traditional and cultural concerns. The functions of organs threatened animals are often exaggerated based on value orientations, religious beliefs, superstitions and totem culture, and the blind faith of some high-end consumers, with complete disregard for the exploitation of wild animal resources.

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