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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Animal Parts

Air Date: Week of

Asia’s booming markets have brought more demand for traditional medicines, many of which use the body parts of endangered animals. The US is pressuring Asian governments to shut down the trade, but some of the demand is coming from the US itself. Stephanie O’Neill reports on a US Fish and Wildlife Service initiative against traditional Asian medicines.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Asia's booming markets have brought more demand for traditional medicines, many of which use the body parts of endangered animals including rhinos and tigers. The US is pressuring Asian governments to shut down this trade, but some of the demand is coming from right here in the United States. So the US Fish and Wildlife Service has begun a new campaign in this country against using some traditional Asian medicines, and it carries a dual message: one aimed at concern for wildlife, the other for human health. Stephanie O'Neill reports from Los Angeles.

(A Chinese pharmacy; people speaking in Chinese)

O'NEILL: The shelves of this Chinatown pharmacy in downtown Los Angeles contain nothing but the usual pharmacy fare. But government officials say a lucrative and substantial underground trade in medicines containing tiger and rhino body parts happens here in L.A. and in other Asian communities nationwide. For centuries Asians have coveted tiger bones and rhinoceros horns as potent medical and sexual tonics that contain the power and strength of these 2 animals.

WOMAN: I don't think you can find on the counter, but there might be in some herb stores. I suspect that they might sell under the counter.

O'NEILL: This lifelong Chinatown resident and merchant, who asked to go unnamed, says she's never tried any of the substances, but is well aware that they do exist and are used.

WOMAN: Our families more, we believe Western medicine more. So, but there's still a lot of older generation people that believe in that.

O'NEILL: It's these people who are the target of a new US Fish and Wildlife Service campaign to stop the use of these medicines. The message is being sent through curriculum in schools, on billboards, and on Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, and English radio airwaves.

(Korean radio announcers speak in Korean. Translator: "While the practice of using tiger and rhino in pharmaceuticals dates back some 4,000 years, if it continues at today's alarming rate wild tigers and rhinos could disappear before the year 2,000.")

HEMLEY: We're talking about the near extinction of two of the world's most revered species, familiar species, that are fast going down the tubes because of the illegal trade in their body parts.

O'NEILL: Ginette Hemley is Director of international wildlife policy for the World Wildlife Fund, which has endorsed the education campaign. Since 1970, 90% of the rhinoceros population has disappeared, leaving only 10,000 rhinos worldwide. And the number of tigers has shrunk to 5,000. Most of the demand for these animal parts is in Asia, but there is significant use here in the US. Wayne Paselli is a vice president with the Humane Society of the United States.

PASELLI: There is no rational basis for continuing the use of these products, and we need to get that message out to leave these animals in the wild where they belong.

O'NEILL: This education campaign effort, however, goes beyond the usual appeal on behalf of animals. George Frampton, Jr., Assistant Interior Secretary for Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, told reports and Asian community leaders that human health is also at issue. As recent laboratory studies showed, most of the compounds that purport to contain endangered species don't.

FRAMPTON: But what they do have in many cases, many cases, is potentially toxic levels of mercury and arsenic and other heavy metals. These foreign substances and heavy metals pose a particular health hazard to older people, to people who are not well, and to young children.

O'NEILL: And, US Fish and Wildlife Service officials say, even those medicines that falsely claim to contain rhino and tiger are helping fuel poaching. Kee Duk Paik, a Korean community educational leader, says it won't be easy to break Asian consumers from a centuries old tradition. But he's confident the campaign will work.

PAIK: We're going to pay much attention to conservation. In order to conserve those animals, We got to know, don't buy the medicine that contains those wild animal parts.

O'NEILL: The Los Angeles campaign targets the US's largest Asian community. The pilot project will continue through December and, if effective, will be implemented nationwide. For Living on Earth, I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Los Angeles.



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