Can Viagra save the tigers?

Traditional Asian medicine practitioners have been at odds with conservationists for years. But that's starting to change.


You’ve heard the bad news, but there’s good news too. And it’s sick and twisted in a whole different way than they told us.

For years I’ve been hearing that rhinos — horribly endangered — are being slaughtered because Asian medicine prescribes rhino horn as an aphrodisiac. I’ve heard that tigers are nearing extinction because tiger bone is used in Asia as an aphrodisiac. I’ve heard that abalone, sea horses and sea turtles are also threatened by the same enormous demand for aphrodisiacs. I’ve also heard that these things don’t work, which of course helps keep the demand infinite.

Among European parallels is the ibex, which used to abound in mountains across Eurasia and North Africa. Apparently you could scarcely lift your eyes unto the hills without an ibex winking back at you. But the field of ibex medicine developed in the Middle Ages, and ibex were hunted out of existence in one place after another. Ibex fragments were used for ailments from sore throat and gout to poisoning and curses. And stones from their intestines — “bezoar” stones — were treasured as aphrodisiacs. (Luckily a few ibex in the Italian Alps survived the age of ibex medicine, and they have been reintroduced into other areas.)

So the advent of Viagra, the famous new erection-granting drug, made me wonder whether this would be a case of technology to the rescue. There was such a frenzy over Viagra in the United States — if there were even a fraction of that going on in Asian countries, might not people around the globe be stopping with their guns to the very heads of tigers and rhinos, turning on their heels and rushing down to the pharmacy? Or at least to the phone to place an order to buy pharmaceutical stocks?

Of course, Viagra (sildenafil citrate) is not an aphrodisiac, but a treatment for impotence. It affects ability, not desire. But the term aphrodisiac is used so loosely that it often includes remedies for impotence. In addition, Viagra is intriguing to many men with no particular problem.

Viagra has been good news in surprising quarters. The undainty haste with which insurance companies agreed to cover Viagra led to legislation ordering them to pay for contraceptives used by women, which most plans didn’t cover. Similarly, Japan’s top medical advisory council had been shaking its collective head doubtfully over the birth control pill for decades, refusing to approve it on safety grounds. Now it has reversed its position, apparently because of the embarrassing contrast with the speedy embrace of Viagra.

I wondered whether the invention of Viagra was also good news for the rhinoceros and the tiger. However, it appeared that at least one of my premises was unsound. Rhino horn and tiger bone used as aphrodisiacs in Asian medicine? “A myth among Westerners,” said World Wildlife Fund (WWF) staff botanist Chris Robbins, who works in the traffic department, which monitors international trade in endangered species. His colleague Judy Mills, director of WWF’s traffic office in Hong Kong, agreed. “All this stuff about rhinos and tigers being used for aphrodisiacs — it’s a complete myth.”

A myth?

Well, almost. It’s true that rhino parts (horns in particular) and tiger parts have been used for thousands of years in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), also called Traditional Asian Medicine (TAM), but not for sexual purposes. TCM is an ancient and well-codified system of medicine, and in its pharmacopeia rhino and tiger parts are nowhere prescribed for sexual uses. A passage headed “Rhino Horn is Not an Aphrodisiac” on WWF’s Web site makes this point, and adds, “The penis of the rhino still has limited use as an aphrodisiac in Laos, Thailand, and India, and genital tonic pills are still on the market in China, but the horn is generally used as a fever-reducing remedy.” Not just any fever, but high, life-threatening fevers, the kind of fever that led one traditional medicine practitioner who is also a conservationist to tell Mills “he would take the last horn off the last rhino if his child were dying of fever.”

While Hoffmann-La Roche researchers didn’t find that rhino horn had any effect at all on the human body, some Hong Kong scientists working with rats reported that massive doses had some effect on fever.

In Korea, Mills says, every household used to keep a few pills on hand containing rhino horn, among other ingredients, which were considered good for bringing people back from coma and stroke. Not for bringing them back from sexual apathy or inability.

The tiger story is similar: Tiger parts have long been valued in TCM, but sex is the least of it. Tiger bone, in particular, is used to treat arthritis and rheumatism, to suppress pain and to reduce swelling. Obviously, the demand for drugs to treat chronic conditions like arthritis is a large one.

“On the other hand, ‘food tonics’ or ‘folk remedies’ are elixirs that may be prepared by untrained merchants and hawkers,” the Web site explains. “Tiger penis soup is an example of a food tonic that has been the source of much misinformation about medicinal use of tiger parts. This concoction, purported to enhance sexual performance, is not based on any known therapeutic formula found in the classical TCM texts or approved pharmacopeia, and is not a treatment that licensed TCM doctors are trained to prescribe. As such, it does not qualify as TCM.”

You can see how this could lead to confusion. It’s traditional, it’s Chinese, and it’s medicine, but it’s not Traditional Chinese Medicine? That’s right. It’s all in the capital letters. If I go on a dude-ranch cattle drive and I fall off my horse Smokey and hurt my leg, and the lead wrangler, Pecos Pete, ties a rattlesnake rattle around my neck and slathers cow pies on my leg to ease the pain and swelling, it’s Western, and it’s medicine — but it’s not “Western medicine.” And the AMA will be angry if you say it is.

Tigers are in trouble without being used for aphrodisiacs. Some of it started in the 1950s when Mao Zedong issued a call to Kill All Tigers on the grounds that they attacked livestock. So many were killed that stockpiles of tiger parts built up, which ran out in the late 1980s and 1990s. Demand remained high and poaching and smuggling soared. In 1993, China banned trade in rhino and tiger parts, and medicines made from either were removed from the official pharmacopeia. “Everything we see is residual, it’s black market,” says Robbins. “The reduction has been tremendous.”

Like any medical system, TCM addresses sexual problems, even if it doesn’t do so via tigers and rhinos. One creature that’s prescribed both as an aphrodisiac and as a treatment for impotence — and so might have demand affected by Viagra — is the sea horse (there are 32 species). Amanda Vincent, professor of conservation biology at McGill University in Montreal and the world’s foremost scholar of hippocampus species, says these are only a few of their uses.

“Certainly, sea horses are used for sexual disorders and are recognized in the pharmacopeia. The point is a lot of them are used for a wide range of ailments.” They’re used to treat asthma and other respiratory ailments, thyroid disorders, arteriosclerosis, general lethargy and more.

So far, Vincent says, she hasn’t seen any Viagra effect on sea horse trade, but it might show up in statistics currently being gathered. Are sea horse preparations effective in treating impotence? “I have no way of knowing at all. Nobody’s ever done double-blind Western testing, but obviously I’m curious,” Vincent says. “I don’t know that Western tests would greatly influence demand. It might be very difficult to challenge belief by testing.”

Vincent is fond of sea horses (and their relatives, the pipe fishes, pipe horses, sea dragons, sea moths and flute mouths). She is co-leader of Project Seahorse, “a team of biologists and social workers committed to conserving and managing sea horses, their relatives and their habitats while respecting human needs.” (Respecting human needs? Are these the conservationists we used to know?)

Sea horse populations suffer from being collected for use in TCM, from being caught in shrimp nets, from being used to decorate unspeakably dorky tourist doodads and from being captured alive for the aquarium trade.

“You export and import sea horses in quite large volume,” Vincent tells me sternly, meaning me as a representative of the United States, I am pretty sure, rather than me as an aquarist or me as a media jackal. “You are the biggest importer in the world of aquarium trade. It is dwarfed by the traditional medicine trade, but nevertheless is significant.”

Project Seahorse doesn’t oppose TCM on the issue of sea horse consumption. “There’s been this tendency to vilify TCM as the root of all conservation problems and it’s not been helpful,” Vincent says. The project views TCM as a stakeholder with an interest in making sure sea horse consumption is sustainable.

Previous conservation attacks on TCM, specifically about aphrodisiacs, have not made for an easy atmosphere. Of rhino horn, Vincent remarks, “The Chinese are sick to death of being accused of that one.” So the project doesn’t make a big deal about sea horses as treatment for sexual disorders.

“Certainly the combative approach that conservationists have sometimes taken toward the traditional medicine community has hampered efforts at negotiation,” Vincent recalls. “We didn’t translate conservation material into Chinese.”

Sea horses are due to be considered for listing in CITES (the U.N.’s Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species). Project Seahorse recommends against listing. “Many partners around the world, including the TCM community, are responding to our concerns, and that cooperation might be shaken by the listing,” Vincent says.

Conservationists and TCM people talking about common concerns is still something Mills can hardly believe. “I never thought I’d see the day,” she says. “Ten years ago everyone was slamming doors on my face. Five years ago everyone was suspicious … the good news is that it really is well on its way. The TCM community has started to get interested in CITES. It’s amazing.”

A big part of the problem has been propaganda about aphrodisiacs, Mills agrees. “Yes. It was very alienating and a significant number of TCM practitioners said, ‘We don’t even want to talk to you because you don’t get it.’”

“Think about if you’re a doctor and you really want rhino horn available so you can save lives if you’re called on to do so. And people from another part of the world are saying, ‘You can’t have this because you’re using it for your libido’ — anyone would be insulted,” Mills says. “It’s sort of this Asia-phobic myth which really has done a disservice to the work we’re trying to do. They find that it’s insulting and really trivializing.”

“It was a great way to attract the attention of people in the West, a great way to attract the attention of donors, but at the end of the day, I think we have to be honest … I think a lot of journalists and a lot of fund-raisers … liked the drama of the simplified sound bite.”

The rhino horn story, in particular, is deeply lodged in the public consciousness. Saying some creature’s parts are used as an aphrodisiac is like vegetarian activists attacking fur wearers: It’s the disgusting luxury of the thing that makes it a strategic target. The general public ignores calls not to eat meat, but shows more sympathy for calls not to wear fur — especially calls for rich or gorgeous people not to wear fur. Yeah!

If told that foreigners use rhino horn to bring down fevers, we may suggest aspirin as a reasonable thing to do. But to improve their sex lives! Ooh, nasty foreigners! Why can’t they make do with their present sex lives, for goodness sake?

But bringing up the subject in itself can create demand. People, Asian and non-Asian, hear that tiger wine or frog knuckles are aphrodisiacs and they give them a try. The WWF cites a case in which “Swiss customs officers seized 52 African rhino horns being imported by a Geneva ‘health club”. Ooh, nasty Swiss! (But that was in 1976.)

While Western conservationists are finally getting their message about conservation across, TCM practitioners are finally getting their messages about TCM across. Lixin Huang, president of the American College of Chinese Traditional Medicine in San Francisco, says, “A lot of Western conservationists have very little knowledge about Traditional Chinese Medicine, so that’s why they mix that up. Once you bring this out and you communicate with them they can quickly see the difference and accept that.”

She stresses the difference between standardized TCM and folk medicine. “Some people who have very little training or who have very little education in these areas have historically had practices such as drinking tiger wine or drinking tiger penis soup. But you never see that in a prescription. People have these old, old ideas. They kept them from their great-great-grandfathers and their great-uncles. “

Asked whether the widespread misconceptions among Western conservationists about TCM practitioners and aphrodisiacs have been a problem, Huang is diplomatic. “They have every reason to work together. If they don’t do that, they will destroy the source of their medicine,” she says.

Huang’s school and the WWF are holding a conference in Beijing this fall, called “Healthy People, Healthy Planet,” which Huang says will demonstrate “how Traditional Chinese Medicine contributes to health care worldwide, and, at the same time, what they have done to preserve endangered species, such as using substitutes, not using endangered species but keeping practicing the medicine.” She’s very excited about the conference. “This is going to be a turning point. This is the first time. At the same time they wish to have great respect from the conservationist community for their work. … In the past the problem [has been that] both parties have misunderstandings of each other. There was no trust. There was very little communication between the two. But now this is changing. I’m very pleased.”

Of course, you can hold all the conferences in the world and the rhinos never show up. As Judy Mills says, “a lot of these species are so threatened in the wild that even if everything was stopped tomorrow they may not survive.” And trade is unlikely to stop as soon as tomorrow.

“There’s still illegal trade!” Mills warns. At present, the biggest item her office is dealing with is illegal trade in shahtoosh, a luxury wool made from Tibetan antelopes — deceased Tibetan antelopes whose deaths were sudden and unnatural — is booming to the beat of several billion dollars a year.

As for animals in TCM, most conservationists think Americans should look inward. We should stop importing sea horses for aquaria, Amanda Vincent suggests. We should increase funding for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife to enforce laws forbidding the import and sale of rhino and tiger products into the U.S., according to the WWF.

So, is Viagra likely to affect trade in endangered species It might be good news for a few creatures, like sea horses. And if that turns out to be the case, Western conservationists might want to raise funds to airlift free Viagra to regions where sea horses are the principal impotence treatment available.

But since the bulk of TCM isn’t about sex, but about treating illness and injury, Viagra’s impact will be tiny compared to that of the new rapprochement between conservationists and the TCM community, and TCM’s increasing interest in conservation.

And this is where medical technology can help. We need aphrodisiacs that really work, not for our benefit but for the animals’. I mean, humans would consume them, but only as a favor to the animals, so we wouldn’t be forced to consume the animals. “I’m not a weirdo — I’m doing this for the animals,” people could tell one another. “Honey, I keep thinking about the sea horses.” Strangers would sidle up in bars: “Wanna save a tiger cub?”

Susan McCarthy is a San Francisco freelance writer and the author, with Jeffrey Masson, of "When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals."

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