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One of the often overlooked harms of unscientific medical practices is the exploitation of animals, including threatened and endangered species, for traditional remedies. With over 7 billion people on the planet and growing, almost anything a large segment of that population does is likely to have an impact on the environment, including driving species to extinction.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that over 80% of the world’s population relies upon animal-derived treatments. They report:

Wild and domestic animals and their by-products (e.g., hooves, skins, bones, feathers, tusks) form important ingredients in the preparation of curative, protective and preventive medicine. For example, in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), more than 1500 animal species have been recorded to be of some medicinal use. In India nearly 15–20 percent of the Ayurvedic medicine is based on animal-derived substances. In Bahia State, in the northeast of Brazil, over 180 medicinal animals have been recorded.

A recently published global review focusing on mammals specifically has found similarly alarming numbers. They found:

Our results show that 521 mammalian species are used to source products to treat 371 ailments. In our database, 155 mammalian species are considered threatened (Vulnerable, Endangered, or Critically Endangered), and a further 46 are Near Threatened…

That’s 201 mammalian species that are somewhere between near threatened and critically endangered. A few of the more charismatic species get most of the attention. For example – the pangolin is poached for its scales, which are ground into a powder and used to treat a variety of ailments. National Geographic reports that more than a million of these animals have been poached between 2000 and 2013. While also used for their meat, the primary driver of the illegal pangolin trade is the use of their scales in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). This makes the pangolin (including all eight known species) the most illegally trafficked animal in the world. They have been all-but wiped out in Asia, and recently the trafficking has shifted to African species.

China, for their part, has promised to crack down on this trade and has removed them from the official list of TCM products. But their efforts are seen as insufficient and perhaps insincere. The Guardian reports:

But the EIA report reveals huge gaps in Chinese enforcement. The government continues to allow pharmaceutical companies to use pangolin scales from the national stockpile, which is “shrouded in secrecy and never seems to run out”. A related report earlier this year found China’s medical insurance system was still reimbursing users for traditional remedies containing pangolin, which undermined the broader goal of reducing the illegal trade.

This is also not only a recent problem. Nature Magazine covered the exact same problem – in 1938.

The animal itself is eaten, but a greater danger arises from the belief that the scales have medicinal value. Fresh scales are never used, but dried scales are roasted, ashed, cooked in oil, butter, vinegar, boy’s urine, or roasted with earth or oyster-shells, to cure a variety of ills. Amongst these are excessive nervousness and hysterical crying in children, women possessed by devils and ogres, malarial fever and deafness.

They talk about the thousands of animals trafficked each year and even regulations to stem the trade, so all that has really changed is the magnitude of the problem. More than 80 years later the animal is in even greater illegal use and we are still getting false promises of cracking down on the trade.

Further, this is not a matter of having to sacrifice a legitimate use that is just unsustainable. Products made from pangolin scales for alleged medicinal use are complete pseudoscience. Pangolin scales are made from keratin. They are essentially fingernails. Belief that they have any healing properties is pure magic. Therefore the people who buy such products in the belief that they will help their ailment are also being exploited. Purging medicine of pseudoscience will take care of the problem of endangering species for fake medicine as a bonus.

Pangolins, of course, are only one example. Tigers, rhinos, sun bears, and Asiatic bears are also exploited for body parts based upon purely pseudoscientific claims (for tiger bones, rhino horns, and bear bile) – along with over 500 other mammalian species.

If there is one thing we have learned in trying to regulate harmful trades, whether in fake medicine or recreational drugs, for example, is that – if the demand is there, someone will figure out a way to make money by fulfilling that demand. As the 1938 Nature article illustrated, we will not solve the problem by “cracking down”, although making trade in endangered species illegal is a good start. It is also important for the government not to officially sanction fake medical products. But these measures are only nibbling around the edges, if there is still massive demand.

Curbing demand requires a cultural change, which is not easy. It starts with an understanding of the relationship between science and legitimate medicine, which is further based on basic scientific literacy and critical thinking skills. This is another lesson recently learned (and perhaps relearned by every generation) – as the proverb goes, for the forest to be green each tree must be green (attributed to George Harrison who in turn was quoting the Maharishi). In order for us to have a rational society, a critical portion of individual people must be rational. Certainly we want rational regulations from the top – but that alone will not accomplish much if the masses want pseudoscience.

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Posted by Steven Novella

Founder and currently Executive Editor of Science-Based Medicine Steven Novella, MD is an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is also the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and the author of the NeuroLogicaBlog, a daily blog that covers news and issues in neuroscience, but also general science, scientific skepticism, philosophy of science, critical thinking, and the intersection of science with the media and society. Dr. Novella also has produced two courses with The Great Courses, and published a book on critical thinking - also called The Skeptics Guide to the Universe.