Department of the Environment

About us | Contact us | Publications

Header imagesHeader imagesHeader images

Publications archive - Biodiversity


Key departmental publications, e.g. annual reports, budget papers and program guidelines are available in our online archive.

Much of the material listed on these archived web pages has been superseded, or served a particular purpose at a particular time. It may contain references to activities or policies that have no current application. Many archived documents may link to web pages that have moved or no longer exist, or may refer to other documents that are no longer available.

Healthy people - healthy wildlife

Proceedings of the second Australian Symposium on traditional medicine and wildlife conservation
Melbourne Australia, March 1999

Trade in Traditional Medicine Using Endangered Species – an International Context

Mr Samuel K H Lee


This essay aims to share the author’s experience and assessment of the issues surrounding international trade in endangered species of wild plants and animals as medicinal ingredients. In an earlier presentation given in the Sydney Symposium held in August 1997, the author briefly outlined why traditional medicine is of concern to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and why CITES is of concern to traditional medicine communities. The presentation also explained the importance of dialogue between CITES or the conservation community and the traditional medicine communities.

The current presentation focuses on how this dialogue should best be conducted, why it is in the best interests of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) communities to address the issue of medicinal wildlife conservation, and why a conversational approach is better than a confrontational approach. In addition, the presentation also touches upon the gradual change in focus of international wildlife conservation, with an increasing concern for conserving medicinal plants.

When TCS Meets Wildlife Conservation

There has been increasing concern over the use of endangered species in all forms of traditional medicine. Simultaneously, no one can deny that there is increasing dialogue between the conservation communities and traditional medicine communities globally. Conferences and workshops of different scales have been taking place around the world. Table 1 provides a chronicle of those events addressing medicinal wildlife conservation and TCM.

One particularly significant event was the Saving the Tiger, For our Children, For the Future: a Chinese-American and Wildlife Conservation Working Conference, which took place in San Francisco in June, 1998. This event was initiated largely by the Chinese-American community and was supported by WWF and TRAFFIC. The event was a part of a larger campaign called Save the Tiger in the Year of Tiger. It was comprised of various activities including artwork, an essay competition, rally and a petition.

Another landmark was the Management and Culture of Marine Species Used in Traditional Medicine, which took place in Cebu, the Philippines, in July 1998. The approach adopted by the organiser, Project Seahorse, to address the issues of trade in marine medicinal species, was appropriately conversational. This involved constructive input from TCM specialists, traders, marine biologists and wildlife trade researchers from China, India, Singapore, South Korea, USA, UK and Australia. People from different areas of expertise were brought together in the conference to discuss their common problems and work out options for potential solutions.

In August of 1999, there will be a top-level international conference on traditional Chinese medicine and wildlife conservation in Beijing. The event is being organised by the State Administration of TCM in Beijing, the American College of TCM, WWF, and TRAFFIC.

Table 1: Chronicle of events related to traditional Chinese medicine and wildlife conservation




July 1995

Seminar on TCM and Wildlife Conservation



Seminar on TCM and Wildlife Conservation

Hong Kong

October 1995

The First International Symposium on Traditional Chinese Medicine and Wildlife Conservation

Hong Kong

August 1997

Healthy People, Healthy Wildlife - First Australian Symposium on Traditional Medicines and Wildlife Conservation


December 1997

The First International Symposium on Endangered Species Used in Traditional East Asian Medicine - Substitutes for Tiger Bone and Musk

Hong Kong


June 1998

Saving the Tiger, For our Children, For the Future: a Chinese-American and Wildlife Conservation Working Conference

San Francisco

July 1998

The Management and Culture of Marine Species Used in Traditional Medicine


November 1998

Workshop on the Conservation of Medicinal Plants


March 1999

Healthy People, Healthy Wildlife - Second Australian Symposium on Traditional Medicines and Wildlife Conservation


August 1999

Healthy People, Healthy Planet - International Conference on Traditional Chinese Medicine and Endangered Wildlife Conservation


'Conversational' versus Confrontational

Whilst the consumption of endangered wildlife can be reduced to a certain extent by laws and trade controls, voluntary adherence to these regulations by TCM communities is far more effective and constructive than law enforcement alone.

Also, a misinformed media when covering the use of wildlife in TCM has often portrayed an inappropriate image. This has been offensive to some members of the TCM communities, jeopardising communications between conservationists and TCM communities. In order to enlist support from TCM communities in reducing the consumption of endangered wildlife, ongoing respectful communication and a conversational approach, is a prerequisite.

When creating and implementing a co-operative approach to the sustainable use of wildlife with TCM communities, the following points may be worthy of note. Many of the examples cited are based on the author’s experience in working with the TCM community in Hong Kong since joining TRAFFIC East Asia in 1996.

Understanding Traditional Medicine

Traditional medicinal systems play a key role in health care around the world. According to the World Health Organisation, traditional medicine provides health care to more than 80 % of the world’s population. However, traditional medicinal systems are considered by some people to be inferior to western medicine and modern medical science. They are even viewed by some sceptics as superstition administered by witch doctors. At the same time, major traditional medicinal systems around the world are gaining formal recognition and respect.

In the context of Hong Kong, the very core of traditional Chinese medicine is the concept of yin-yang, which is often misinterpreted by the western public and media. Toning up the yang to the balanced level' has been mistranslated into 'enhancing sexual prowess or for aphrodisiac purposes'. The recent media coverage linking the impotence drug Viagra with the use of rhino horn in TCM is a typical example of this misunderstanding ('Why rhinos recommend Viagra' 1998:80). Box 1 provides some media coverage of the issue.

Some members of the TCM community feel humiliated by the myth that rhino horn, or sometimes virtually anything used as traditional medicine, is used as an aphrodisiac rather than a medicine to treat serious, sometimes life-threatening, illness. TCM is not only aphrodisiacs; it is a legitimate form of health care.

Box 1: Portrayal of TCM in selected media.

 '...rhinoceros horns prized here [South Korea] as an aphrodisiac, ...' Hong Kong Standard 17 March 1994 (taken from a wired news originally from Agence France Press)

' Tiger and rhinoceros parts are ground up and widely used in Asia as medicinal potions and aphrodisiacs.' International Herald Tribune 8 April 1994

'Chinese consumers are willing to pay vast sums for wild tiger products [tiger-bone plasters] in the belief that such medicine enhance their sexual prowess'Sunday Morning Post 10 April 1994

'Tiger parts, including bones, claws, penises and blood, are used in a variety of exotic products, including soup, wine and balms. Wild tiger products are believed by some Chinese consumers to improve physical and sexual prowess' Eastern Express 23 April 1994

An analogy to the labelling of some mineral water may help illustrate the point. Under the requirements of some countries, nutritional facts must be printed on the labels of all food products. However, if you look at the nutritional facts about mineral water, you probably would find that mineral water has virtually no nutritional value: no carbohydrates, no proteins, no fat, and only some trace minerals. This is simply a wrong application of parameters to look at the subject. In a similar way, it seems to be inappropriate to view TCM with a set of western parameters.

A proper understanding of and respect for TCM systems is essential for the conservation of medicinally used wildlife.

Communication Channels

When TCM communities hear of wildlife trade controls and restrictions imposed by the government, they can feel victimised - and rightly so. Why should they be the last to know about the new rules and regulations, which will affect their livelihoods and ability to offer health care to their patients and customers?

While government notifications are important and necessary, it is important to begin communicating wildlife conservation issues to TCM communities long before these issues lead to increased controls and restrictions. This allows TCM communities to become involved in the process, to offer helpful input, and to plan in advance for restrictions on supply and use. If they are informed early enough, the need for increased controls might even be eliminated through voluntary cooperation and compliance.

In addition, the messages used to communicate conservation needs should be crafted carefully and thoroughly as new trade 'controls' can be understood by the defensive or ill-informed to be yet another trade 'ban' imposed for arbitrary and frivolous reasons. This perception stops any hope of voluntary co-operation.


In Hong Kong, there are more than 30 TCM organisations and many more exist throughout East Asia. It is impossible for an individual to meet representatives of every single TCM organisation in person. TRAFFIC East Asia relies heavily its newsletters on TCM and wildlife conservation, which are published in Chinese and Korean. Four issues of the Korean newsletter have been published, while the third issue of the Chinese newsletter will come out shortly.

Much of the discussion, decision-making, and media coverage on the issue of the use of wildlife in TCM have been in English only. Therefore, many members of the TCM community were left out of the process and were caught by surprise when bans or stricter regulations took effect. For these reasons, TCM communities around the world have enthusiastically welcomed the TRAFFIC East Asia newsletter. It enables readers to understand more about the wildlife conservation issues that will impact their lives, and to understand how their actions can positively or negatively impact upon wildlife conservation.

Cultural Differences

To many Asian cultures, and indeed to cultures around the world, plants and animals are seen as objects to serve human needs. Prohibiting the utilisation of natural resources simply does not make sense to many people. Therefore, the concept of wildlife conservation can be alien to them. If the need for conservation is to be accepted by people who make their livelihoods from wildlife or use wildlife for necessities such as food and medicine, then care should be taken to avoid what may be seen as ideological or culturally imperialistic approaches. It is important to accept and respect differing views of the value of wildlife, while, at the same time, explaining the necessity of conservation measures.

The Way Ahead: From Animal to Plant

While some large, charismatic, terrestrial animals, such as the tiger, rhinoceros and bear, have long had the world’s conservation attention, there is increasing concern over the conservation of medicinal plants. There are many 'tigers' in the plant kingdom, such as some orchid species, and the TRAFFIC Network is looking into this issue. TRAFFIC East Asia, for example, is currently looking into the trade in medicinal plants in countries in the East Asian region. As most TCM specialists know, this is a far more critical issue for human health care needs since plants make up more than 80 % of TCM ingredients.

TCM in an Australian Context

It is important to recognise that Australia is a multi-cultural society. It is a nation where we have the right to participate in our traditional cultural rituals and practices. However, in association with this freedom there is an inherent responsibility that we observe and comply with the laws of this nation.

In addition, as the regulatory framework for TCM in Australia is currently being developed, it would be in the best interests of the TCM community to enhance and promote a positive and professional image to the broader Australian public. It must be reinforced that TCM practitioners play an important role in the social well being of this society and the environment. For practitioners, the conservation of wildlife means the conservation of their medicinal resources.


There is an urgent need for members of both the wildlife conservation community and TCM communities to talk to each other. Success in combining the interests of TCM and wildlife conservation requires a great deal of common sense. Showing respect and communicating in a language understood by all sides are not profound concepts. However, they demand time, money and good will - precious resources that conservationists and TCM specialists never thought they would have to spend on one another. But investing the time, the money, and the good will is the only way forward for TCM and the world’s wildlife.


'Why Rhinos Recommend Viagra'. 1998. The Economist. 30 May. 80.

Please note: The TRAFFIC website is at