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Healthy people - healthy wildlife

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


Opening address

Bruce Billson MP
Federal Member for Dunkley

Introduction

I want to begin by passing on to you all the very best wishes of my colleague, the Minister for the Environment and Heritage, Senator Robert Hill.

We in the Commonwealth Government are very pleased to have been involved in organising this Symposium and, on behalf of Senator Hill, I want to thank the two other organisations involved in putting this event together: TRAFFIC Oceania and the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT). In particular, I want to acknowledge Professor David Story, Dean of Faculty at RMIT and Mr Haisheng Zhao, Cultural Consul in the People’s Republic of China Consulate in Melbourne.

The issue we’re addressing today is one of a great many which confronts our society as we seek to translate 'sustainable development' from concept to reality.

It is also one of many challenges which involves some re-alignment of practices which are long established in tradition and culture.

A number of our indigenous communities, for example, have in recent times revised their traditional hunting practices in order to help prevent the extinction of various species - species which I should add are largely under threat through no fault of aboriginal people.

Increasingly, more and more Australian farmers have also begun to move away from the techniques, which their forbears imported from Europe. They’re now realising that sustainability on the land requires agricultural techniques much more in tune with the Australian environment.

In places where fishing has been a family tradition for generations, we're seeing dramatic changes. Recognising the need to preserve the long-term viability of fish stocks, boat-owners themselves, are in many cases agreeing to catch limits, turning to aquaculture, or even leaving the industry altogether.

So sustainable development is leading a great many people, both in Australia and around the world, to reassess practices established in tradition and culture. And in the vast majority of cases, sustainability doesn't mean we have to abandon tradition - it does mean adaptation to ensure it can survive.

In the case of traditional medicine, there's no reason why it shouldn't continue to grow and prosper. But, and this brings us to our purpose in being here today, traditional medicine must adapt to the urgent plight of endangered species that have been and, we fear, continue to be used in traditional medicine.

Growth of Traditional Medicine in Australia

This task is made all the more urgent and all the more difficult by the growth of traditional medicine, here and around the world.

From South Africa to India to China to the bush medicine of indigenous Australians, in many parts of the world, there is of course a very long history of using plants and animals in traditional medicine.

Today, demand for traditional medicine is rising dramatically as the population of communities, which historically rely on traditional medicine, has steadily grown; and as more people in western industrialised countries like Australia have begun incorporation alternative medicines into their lives.

The World Wide Fund for Nature has reported that the World Health Organisation estimates that up to 80 % of the world's population relies upon medicinal plants and animals for their primary health care needs (WWF: 1998). It also reports that the herbal medicine business in the European Union is worth some US$4 billion per year (WWF Factsheet on Medicinal Plants).

In Australia, alternative health is now a billion dollar a year industry - a sector which some 57% of Australian have drawn upon in the past 12 months. And traditional medicine is a crucial part of this growing sector.

In 1996, it was estimated that there were at least 4,500 practitioners of traditional medicine in NSW, Victoria and Queensland, and 2.8 million traditional medicine consultations each year.

Traditional Chinese medicine has become especially popular in Australia, as in many other parts of the world. It's also estimated that imports of Chinese herbal medicine have increased by 100% annually since 1993.

There is no question that it is now part of the mainstream in Australian society, as well as being an integral part of the cultural and physical well being of a great many Asian-Australian communities.

Links to Endangered Species

However, while the growth in traditional medicine is undeniable, as everyone here knows, two more things are undeniable; that the list of flora and fauna threatened with extinction is growing ever longer and that some aspects of traditional medicine are partly to blame for the increased threat of extinction.

Traditional medicine is not the only thing which drives poachers to kill endangered animals and illegally harvest endangered plant species but, in many cases, we believe it is a significant contributing factor.

And despite the development of alternatives to the use of endangered species in traditional medicines, many of those medicines being sold here and around the world still contain, or claim to contain, endangered species.

In the three years 1996-1998, there were 3,000 seizures of traditional medicine products in Australia, which contained or claimed to be derived from endangered species. While the vast majority were plant species such as ginseng, cactus, orchids and cycads, over 500 were animal species, including some of the most highly endangered or threatened animals such as tiger, bear, rhino, leopard and turtle.

In another groundbreaking report on the global trade in mass-produced Chinese medicine, TRAFFIC found that, of the 600 medicines documented, some 430 listed endangered, threatened or protected wildlife as ingredients (TRAFFIC USA).

It's not hard to extrapolate on the growth figures I mentioned previously to appreciate the very grave threat unfettered expansion of traditional medicine poses to the survival rate of some of the world’s most endangered species.

Industry growth and species survival are now well and truly on collision course.

No one wants to see these species wiped out. It’s not in the interests of traditional medicine practitioners, their patients, or the wider community, not to mention the species themselves.

But species will be lost unless we can reduce demand for products sourced from endangered species.

That in turn depends on international cooperation to ensure that all countries impose regulatory regimes consistent with conservation goals.

It depends on worldwide investment in education to minimise the demand for these products, and it depends on more research into alternatives to traditional medicine products sourced from endangered species.

The Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) provides the framework required at the global level. Since its beginning in the mid 1970s, Australia has been an active supporter of and participant in this international effort.

Through CITES, we have made some valuable progress. For example, the decline in the population of elephants was reversed as a result of the international ban on trade in ivory implemented by CITES in 1989. Now, the population of elephants in the wild is growing steadily again.

However, we have not succeeded completely with other species. Tragically, we may be losing the battle with respect to various species of tiger. Already, three sub-species are extinct and the remaining five are under serious threat of extinction. The rhino populations are also under very serious threat with numbers falling from 70,000 in the 1960s to less than 12,000 today.

Happily, at least in Australia, our efforts to protect endangered species has the broad support of the traditional medicine community. I have little doubt that this reflects very strong feelings on similar lines in the wider community.

We have an obligation – all of us – to try to avoid the futile road towards extinction.

The Way Forward

To protect endangered species from traditional medicine manufacturers still wishing to use these species, the Commonwealth Government is undertaking two initiatives.

First, we're tightening the regulations to strengthen the Wildlife Protection (Regulation of Exports and Imports) Act 1982, introduced by the Fraser Coalition Government.

Specifically, we’re amending the law so that representing a traditional medicine product or service as being sourced from an endangered species will be a prosecutable offence, irrespective of whether endangered species are in fact being used. That is, if the label or description says it contains an endangered species, that will be an offence.

Similar legislation is being implemented in other countries which are parties to CITES. It acknowledges that merely representing a product as being sourced from an endangered species adds to demand for poaching activity.

The amendment will also encourage the used of alternative ingredients.

The second element of the government’s approach will be a public education campaign to complement the new legislation. International treaties and regulation alone will not save endangered species or ensure the long-term supply of traditional medicine supplies. Education is the key.

We’re currently preparing a comprehensive booklet which outlines the CITES framework and the domestic legislation, and this will be distributed widely amongst the traditional medicine community.

There are many alternatives to medicines containing endangered species, and these alternatives have been recognised by many in the traditional medicine community. Throughout the campaign, we’ll be consulting the traditional medicine community, working together to achieve our goals of reducing demand for endangered species and using alternatives having similar properties claimed for endangered species.

Conferences like this are obviously very helpful in getting the information out, and it is to be hoped that today's Symposium will have a beneficial ripple effect promoting the need to protect endangered species throughout the traditional medicine sector.

In addition to existing practitioners of traditional medicine, we need to look to the future and to those young people starting their careers in this growing industry. That means involving our educational institutions in the process.

I know this very institution, RMIT, has led the way with ground-breaking courses which cover both traditional and modern western medicine, something which has received widespread recognition both here and abroad.

We also need to encourage the wider community to work with the traditional medicine sector to find and provide alternatives to endangered species. In some cases, that means cultivating alternative sources of the same species; in others, it means finding completely different species which are not under threat, but can provide the same health benefits. In all cases, it means reducing the threat to endangered species. To take the pressure off wild stocks, alternatives need to be available in large enough quantities and at low enough prices.

In China, for example, the government has encouraged the cultivation of medicinal plants - with 330,000 hectares already under production. Similar steps are being taken in South Africa to take the pressure off local populations in the wild (WWF Factsheet on Medicinal Plants1995).

With sensible policy and some original thinking, you can protect endangered species and boost the traditional medicine business simultaneously. Australian enterprise needs to look for opportunities, invest and develop appropriate marketing strategies.

Conclusion

In closing, sustainable development requires us all to be open to change. Where there is a real threat to the survival of species, we must change.

Just as many communities around the world are embracing the philosophy and practice of recycling, so too is awareness being raised about the environmental consequences of consumer’s choices we make in other parts of our lives. That includes health services and products.

But the community needs to be informed if people are going to make the right choices. The awareness-raising and educational task is a joint one, involving Government, business, community groups and educational institutions.

The traditional and alternative medicine organisations represented here today can play a significant role in promoting and instilling wildlife conservation attitudes among their membership. While the government can assist through better regulation and support for educational programs, traditional medical practitioners have perhaps the most vital role to play.

People trust their doctors, and, in the case of traditional medicine, they will look to the providers of traditional medical services and products for guidance on the environmental consequences of their purchases and reassurance about the effectiveness of substitutes for products traditionally sourced from endangered species.

We in the Commonwealth Government look forward to working with you to ensure that the traditional medicine industry and the future for endangered species populations in the wild are both long and prosperous.

References

TRAFFIC USA. http://www.panda.org/kids/portfolio/traffic.html

WWF. 6 May 1998. Press Release: Trade Monitoring Groups Turn Attention to Plant Tigers.

WWF. Factsheet on Medicinal Plants. http://www.panda.org/resources/factsheets/general/fct_medicinal.html