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  • Nalani Abigail S.

Plant-Based Drugs to Restore Animal Welfare

Updated: Nov 5, 2022

Despite the advancement of pharmaceuticals throughout the years, traditional medicines are still consumed as either mainstream or complementary illness remedy. This is especially relevant in low-income countries where 40-71% of population rely on them. Traditional medicine is often thought as herbal medicine; this is true for the most part, however, the use of animals can also be included. A notable example of such type is Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Resulting from over 2.000 years of ancient healers’ observations, TCM has gained popularity far beyond its origin country and acquired an industry value of more than $60 billion each year. It is estimated that 13% of TCM products are derived from animals.

How does TCM Impact Wildlife?

Demand of animal substances for TCM has prompted animal poaching which push some species to the brink of extinction. Prominent cases are tiger, bear, and rhino population decline due to quests for their bone, bile, and horn respectively. In fact, TCM was the main driver of the extinction of some rhino species such as Northern White and Western Black rhinos. Although China - as well other countries - has signed the Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species (CITES) which prohibit commercial trade of various animals including tiger, captive breeding is still pretty much allowed. Captive breeding are supposed to aim for education, research, and conservation of rare species. However, farms for medicine are not always without animal maltreatment. In Vietnam, tigers are kept isolated from sunlight and malnourished conditions. While bears are connected with permanent catheter that can rust or degrade to extract their bile. They are kept within cramped space which damage their muscles and unhygienic condition that cause infection, resulting in contaminated bile extracts.

Tiger Farm


Herbal Alternatives for TCM

If the underlying beliefs, characteristics and/or substances of animal-based medicine are known, we can discover plant-based alternatives to replace medicine that costs animal welfare. For instance, the main constituent of bear bile is ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA) which are also added in commercial drugs for dissolving gallstones. UDCA has anti-inflammation, heart & cardiovascular protection, and anti tumor properties. These properties are also possessed by Chinese skullcap root (Huang Qin) and Chinese goldthread rhizome (Huang Lian). Flavonoid constituents in both plants have been demonstrated for anti-inflammatory effects in living cells and can neutralize toxins. The main bioactive compound of Huang Lian, berberine, showed satisfactory effects in treating liver problems; including those acute diseases induced by alcohol, fibrosis (thickening of tissue), and cancer.

Chinese Skullcap


Although there are lack of evidence, tiger bone is believed to alleviate arthritis, rheumatic, fractures, as well as back and knee pain. Chinese peony (Bai Shao) can be a replacement due to its painkiller properties especially for limb pain. A substance called paeoniflorin contained in its root is shown to have anti-inflammatory property. Other herbs such as female ginseng (Dang Gui), which is usually used to maintain women’s reproduction, can also be used for treating rheumatic and traumatic injuries. Besides, the main composition of tiger bone is actually calcium; obviously, calcium has been found in plenty of other sources. It is worth to note that different herbs with similar properties may be combined to produce synergistic effects.

Chinese Peony


Social Challenges

In 1993, China had removed some animals, including rhino and tiger, from its traditional pharmacopeia (official medicine book). However, its 2018 revision became a setback for combating wildlife trade as it has allowed “controlled use” of animal parts both for medicinal and cultural purposes. Although restricted, this would confuse consumers and law enforcers about which products are legal or illegal, and could expand the market for other types of animal products. Eradication of animal farms must be taken more seriously since their existence not only benefit from, but also contribute to the rising demand of animal drugs.

Further, more research must be conducted to address whether animal derived substances actually do exhibit healing properties. Some studies proving the effects of rhino horn, for instance, may be biased due to small sample sizes and the fact that they were conducted by only Asian scientists. Nevertheless, we can’t overlook the fact that some animals hold important cultural beliefs that prevail to this day. For example, some Asian cultures perceive tiger as a symbol for power, beauty and charm; and it became one of the Chinese zodiacs. So besides finding more effective and cheaper herbal alternatives, it is urgent to raise society awareness of the harmful effects of TCM and other traditional meds to animals; especially those that have become cultural icons.



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