Why Traditional Chinese Medicine is at the heart of the Animal Rights crisis in China and how you can help
With a recorded 793 deaths in Italy this past Saturday, it would be an understatement to say that the spread of COVID-19 has taken the world by surprise. In terms of its origins, although we do not know the exact source of the virus, what we do know is that it is highly likely that it came from a ‘wet market’ in Wuhan.
For the past 40 years, the trade of wildlife has played a prominent role in shaping China’s economic growth. Just as you would find a Boulangerie in Paris, there are over 100 wet markets estimated to exist in the Beijing province alone. At wet markets, one can find different cuts of meats, fresh fish, and even exotic animals. This ranges from frogs to crocodiles. They are a means for fresh food products. For others, they are a source of income. In this sense, wet markets have become a staple of daily life for many Chinese.
In the media, there has been a lot of inconsistent information following the COVID-19 outbreak, often confusing wet and wildlife markets. Different to wet markets, at wildlife markets one will find even more exotic and endangered animals such as peacocks, koalas, and monkeys. Wildlife markets are typically ‘dry’ with caged animals.
However, this does not mean that there will not be wet Amphibians there too. The issue is that, at some wet markets, you can also find animals you would typically find at a wildlife market. This was the case with the wet market in Wuhan where COVID-19 spread from. Naturally, this has created a lot of confusion in the media. Regardless of the differences, both types of markets pose great threats to endangered species and the public.
As more evidence began to surface, tying the spread of the disease with these markets, the Chinese government ultimately froze the sale and consumption of wild animals. In December, around 20,000 wildlife farms were shut down. Within the first two weeks of February, 700 arrests were made as individuals defied the new regulations. In response, on the 24th of February, the government implemented a permanent ban. These measures revealed the truth behind how big China’s wildlife industry truly is. For conservationists, it highlighted that their workload was even greater than they may have expected.
Within the animal rights community, the ban evoked a tremendous amount of concern that this would just drive the wildlife market underground. The emergence of black markets implies increased illegal activity. The nature of illegal trade means that the treatment and handling of the animals are even more ruthless, due to the urgency to move them along. Illegal poaching and capturing of animals is also a big red flag for wildlife conservationists as it threatens endangered populations.
Fortunately, most Chinese are still very cautious of consuming such wildlife owing to their fears of contracting COVID-19. This has meant that black markets essentially have had near to no use. Yet, as China moves towards lifting lockdowns, there is an unsettling undercurrent that things will slowly return to usual.
In this past week alone, there have already been a few wet markets springing back up across China. This demonstrates the absolute disregard for the severity of COVID-19 and its consequences. The mass deaths and crash of the global economy should be enough evidence that things need to change. Hence, we have a global responsibility to hold the Chinese government to account to adequately address the issues at hand.
Animal Rights Legislation in China
Currently, there is no nationwide legislation, which prohibits cruelty towards animals. Consequently, animals are left open to domestic and systematic abuse, with no repercussions for the perpetrators. For those individuals inclined to abuse animals, the lack of judicial punishment acts as an incentive for them. On a basic psychological level, if you could get away with doing something without punishment, you are much more inclined to do so. It sends out a nationwide message that animals have no individual worth, they are only defined by what humans want them to be.
That being said, it would be hypocritical for Western states to point the finger at China concerning their farming methods. When it was the West that created and spread the barbaric Factory Farming model. It is important to distinguish, that by no means do I contend that Western Farming models are any better. As someone who does not eat meat, I believe worldwide reform is needed.
However, the animal rights protections in place in the Western States do provide a slight safety net, which works to minimise the brutality of farming for meat. On a structural level, the lack of animal cruelty prevention policy in China allows for systematic abuse to go unmonitored and unpunished. For example, in the UK the Animal Welfare Act (2006) prohibits the unnecessary suffering of any animal. This means that within meat farming the workers have the duty of care entrusted into them to ensure that suffering is kept to the minimum. Something that does not exist in China.
Although the ultimate aim is to globally faze out mass meat farming. Until we reach that point, the regulation of it is imperative. A regulatory body could monitor the conditions the animals are kept in before slaughter. For example, making sure that animals have access to water and are not rotting in their own faecal matter. They can also set methods to ensure that the slaughter itself is done in the most painless way possible. Having something similar to the Animal Welfare Act in place in China would help reduce the unnecessary suffering and improve hygiene. Overall, this would limit potential risks for both animals and consumers.
The animal rights movement in China has been gaining more and more support over the past few years. The internet has been pivotal in exposing the extent of animal cruelty cases in China. When people upload videos or stories of animal cruelty online, the most alarming side is that without animal rights legislation, nothing can be done. The feeling of absolute helplessness has certainly fuelled animal activists inside and outside of China. There are a phenomenal number of people risking their lives daily to make a stand against animal cruelty.
In response to the COVID-19 tragedies, the State Council have agreed to a meeting in 2020 to ruminate Chinese wildlife policies and modify where necessary. As the State Council is the highest administrative body, this is a huge window of opportunity for animal rights activists and conservationists to finally see change. With such knowledge, in this period leading up to State Council meetings, we need to get behind these pressure groups and demonstrate our support. If there were a time for animal rights legislation to be enacted in China, it would be now.
According to the BBC, the Chinese region of Shenzhen has officially extended the wildlife ban to include dogs and cats. On May 1st the new law will be enforced. Such a change in legislation gives hope that official bodies are taking our concerns seriously. As China policy specialist for Humane Society International Dr Peter Li asserts: “This really could be a watershed moment in efforts to end this brutal trade that kills an estimated 10 million dogs and 4 million cats in China every year.” Hypothetically speaking, if every region in China were to do the same this would be a revolutionary moment in Chinese animal rights history.
The intention behind these changes may be based on protecting humans rather than animals. But beggars can’t be choosers. Any amendment that limits animal cruelty is better than nothing. It is a starting point at least. As the Humane Society International expresses, education is a key component in altering the treatment of animals in Asia. Such education can be made secondary to ensure that such bans are not lifted in the next few years.
In this post, I will outline the key areas for legal revision and how we can help make these changes happen from afar. I will be focusing primarily on Traditional Chinese Medicine and its offspring of problems.
Traditional Chinese Medicine
Although China has been engaging in science-based medicinal practices for many years, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has held its position amongst citizens as a popular method. So much so that it is even used in clinics and hospitals in conjunction with science-based methods. The UN predicts that on average $19 billion per annum is generated from the TCM market. Undoubtedly, the economic factor explains the fundamental reason why Xi Jinping has been so diligent in promoting TCM both inside and outside of China. Tai Chi, Herbal Products and Acupuncture are all examples of TCM you may have encountered in your local community. All seem pretty harmless, right?
In your local community perhaps, but in China, TCM is one of the biggest driving forces behind the need for wildlife and wet markets. The exotic animals or their body parts that are sold at these markets are believed to have healing qualities. For example, Seahorses are also commonly found at these markets, with the promise of male sexual virility. The National Geographic predicts that around 20 million seahorses are purchased a year for benefits promised by TCM.
Within the tradition, the more ‘wild’ the produce is, the more ‘powerful’ the attributes. This is one of the reasons why some Chinese will prefer to buy animals live from the markets. Once purchased, they can choose between taking them home to kill themselves or have them killed in front of them.
Undercover footage of these markets has exposed the dark reality for so many animals. Wet and wildlife markets make battery farming look like a walk in the park. There is no such thing as ‘free-range’ and hygiene is hardly a priority. Market sellers will openly butcher animals on the floor, leaving puddles of blood and faecal matter stagnant all day. This form of environment is psychologically taxing on the live animals present. As sentient beings, the animals can witness, sense and comprehend others being brutally killed around them. This undoubtedly causes immense fear.
Wet and wildlife markets are also rife for disease, as we have observed with COVID-19. Typically, the more ‘rare’ an animal is, the more likely it is to be disease-ridden. It is also more likely that the journey the exotic animal took to the market was disruptive and stressful. Due to the illegal nature of obtaining endangered species from the wild, the handling and transport of the animals are far from sensitive. The urgency to move these creatures on only amplifies the barbarism.
In terms of proposals of how to address these issues directly, wet and wildlife markets need to be made illicit for the protection of animals and humans. The Wildlife Protection Law is the core piece of legislation, which needs to be reviewed and amended. The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) establish a similar position: “In the interests of biodiversity, public health and governance worldwide, China’s lawmakers must use this opportunity and the revision to the Wildlife Protection Law to permanently prohibit trade in the parts and products of threatened species for any purpose, including for the production of medicines and decorative items.”
Enacted in 1989, China’s Wildlife Protection Law justifies the use of wild animals for the benefit of humans. Subsequently, endangered animals legally became a commodity for human beings in China. Britannica stated in 2007 that there were a recorded 36 species of animals being used for TCM. An amendment was made in 2016, which extended this use of endangered animals for TCM. Such an amendment intensified the problem further, as National Geographic now report that the figure rose to 54 species.
The use of endangered animals has been the main impetus for of criticism TCM, not only from the animal rights community but conservationists too. In this sense, TCM acts as a direct threat to endangered species. Also, it is openly criticised by the medical community. Healthcare professionals across the globe argue that TCM’s efficiency is sorely lacking.
Farming of endangered Species for TCM
Besides wet and wildlife markets, TCM has also acted as the leading motivation behind the farming of endangered species in China. The State Council continually lifts bans that are in place to protect endangered wildlife. The Chinese government also supports the farming of endangered species through their promotion of TCM treatments. The fundamental problem with such farming is that it threatens endangered wildlife populations for a futile cause: The ennoblement of TCM.
A recent example is the Chinese government’s promotion of ‘Tan Re Qing’ injections. Despite the World Health Organisation (WHO) stating that there is no cure for COVID-19, the Chinese government have begun officially promoting the use of ‘Tan Re Qing’ injections. This particular injection contains bear bile. There is currently no evidence that bear bile is effective in curing COVID-19. Never-the-less, the National Health Commission of China published it as a recommended treatment for COVID-19.
Under the ‘Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora’, Asian Black Bears are protected from cross-border trade. Legally, only bile from farmed bears can be used for TCM, and subsequently, these recommended ‘Tan Re Qing’ injections. It is important to note, that Asian Black Bears are classified as an endangered species.
Although there are Asiatic Black Bear farms within China, the majority of them reside in North Korea, Laos and Vietnam. Accordingly, conservationists have flagged their concerns that such an announcement will drive the illegal bear bile trade. Following an investigation by National Geographic, they have been proven right. On the internet gangs are offering the sale of wild bear bile from North Korea, Laos and Vietnam with the promise of it being ‘purer’ and in its ‘wild form’. Hence, conservationists expect Bear poaching in these countries to surge. Therefore, this puts the wild Asian Black Bear population at high risk.
For animal rights activists the promotion of ‘Tan Re Qing’ injections is also a focal point of concern. Cruelty is imminent, whether the bears are farmed domestically or involved in illegal international trade. The bile is removed from the gallbladder using a syringe, pipe or catheter. The routine extraction process itself is extremely uncomfortable and even after the process, the bears often endure painful infections.
The living conditions of the majority of these captive bears are so abysmal, that without including the extraction process they are subject to cruelty. Many of the bears develop calluses and sores from ill-sized cages, which only perpetuate issues with infections.
The injection has been formally categorised under both TCM and Western medical recommendations, which is false information. Therefore, there will be inescapable suffering of bears with no official medical evidence to provide adequate reasoning. This epitomises the inefficacy of TCM and how animals are devaluated instantly through such practices. The messages that such practices illuminate, especially concerning endangered species are deeply worrying.
From a medical stance, recommending injections that contain bear bile without efficient evidence is also highly dangerous. As Animals Asia affirm, “pathology reports have shown that bile from sick bears is often contaminated with blood, pus, faeces, urine, bacteria and cancer cells.” Based on protecting humans and their wellbeing, the National Health Commission need to remove these injections as a recommendation. The ban on wildlife consumption is essentially contradictory if wildlife is still encouraged to be farmed for TCM.
Resultantly, the WHO has experienced an influx of complaints from activists, who are pressuring them to pull up the Chinese government and condemn their recent actions. Although alone you may feel that your voice will not be heard by the National Health Commission, as a collective it can be. We must exercise our political right to protest and place pressure international bodies such as the WHO to hold the National Health Commission to account.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time that the government have allowed TCM to surpass their responsibility to protect endangered wildlife. The farming of Tigers for TCM has been a hot topic for the past two decades. International charities and NGO’s such as WWF, Born Free and EIA are key players in this constant battle against the Chinese government.
Enforced from 1975, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) was created to protect endangered plants and animals. Regarding the protection of Tigers, Declaration 14.69 of the Treaty asserts: “Parties with intensive operations breeding tigers on a commercial scale shall implement measures to restrict the captive population to a level supportive only to conserving wild tigers; tigers should not be bred for trade in their parts and derivatives.”
Although China is not the only country that farms Tigers, they are the only country consistently pressing for this section to be removed. China’s eagerness is based upon the use of Tigers in TCM. The first trace of the use of tiger bone medicine in China dates back to 500 A.D.
Within TCM, the Tiger is considered one of the most valuable animals in terms of its healing powers. For example, tiger bones are commonly ground down into powder form. This is then mixed into glue or wine, as a means to treat rheumatism. Their whiskers are even worn as ‘protective charms’ and their penis’ are used to make love potions. Despite it being criticised, the farming of tigers for TCM has become such a phenomenon, that there are currently more tigers in captivity than there are in the wild.
WWF has recorded that with around 3,900 left in the world, the Tiger is an endangered species. Besides their habitats being destroyed, poachers and climate change, captive and ‘Tiger Farms’ is recorded by WWF as their biggest threat. “Current estimates indicate that between 7,000 and 8,000 tigers are being held in more than 200 centres in East and Southeast Asia, with roughly three-quarters of these tigers located in China.”
The first Chinese tiger farm was a government-funded projection that started in 1986. The operation was a way of generating a profit by selling tiger bones for the TCM market. Since then, besides there is a growing number of tiger farms in China.
The current government-sanctioned farms set up by business people in China and neighbouring countries supposedly have the purpose of capping poaching in the wild. However, this has proven an extremely unsuccessful solution. Evidence denotes that the majority of these tigers are captured from the wild, treated cruelly and ultimately, their body parts are sold to the black market.
The tiger farming model has crossed borders and similar farms can now be found in countries such as Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. Like any market, there are not just classic commercial farms. Some Chinese citizens have created their small zoos and there is an increasing amount of illegitimate ‘backyard’ set-ups. Regardless of whether these farms are commercially regulated or not, poor living conditions ultimately cause the animals psychological and physical pain.
Adhering to the international uproar, in 1993 China prohibited the domestic trade of rhino horns and tiger bones. Although such changes did not guarantee the complete protection of endangered species. They did symbolise that Chinese authorities were listening to, and respecting wildlife conservation concerns.
Despite this previous breakthrough, in 2018 it was replaced with an order that admitted the use of tiger bones and rhino horns for clinical treatment and medical research. The loophole created by the State Council is that such horns and bones can be used, as long as the animals are ‘farmed’ in China. Following wide scale backlash, Government Officials expressed that implementation of this new order would be delayed. However, it has still not been reversed. In fact, it is still listed as valid policy on the State Council’s website.
Since they lifted the ban, the number of Tiger Farms in China and neighbouring countries rocketed. Ironically, when legal tiger farming is booming, the illegal market also surges. The WWF states that: “The current scale of commercial captive breeding efforts within these farms is a significant obstacle to the recovery and protection of wild tiger populations because they perpetuate the demand for tiger products, serve as a cover for illegal trade and undermine enforcement efforts.”
Thus, the WWF is actively trying to engage with international governments with tiger farms to phase out this trade. Ultimately they hope to stop breeding for non-conservationist purposes. In terms of legislation review for the State Council, this 1993 ban evidently needs to be re-introduced to curb this cruel and exorbitant trade.
How you can help stop farming for TCM
In terms of how you can help eradicate tiger farms, there are three main options:
1. Support NGOs and Charities
You can donate to NGO’s and charities such as WWF, Born Free and EIA to help fund their projects. They use a mix of methods including research, investigatory missions and direct negotiations with East and South-East Asian governments.
If you cannot afford financially to donate, you can always assist them with voluntary work or setting up a fundraiser in your local area. Social Media is also a strong tool for spreading awareness. Any form of re-posting expands the content outreach and likeliness to generate financial and political support to these projects.
2. Exercise your political powers
The WWF and other animal advocate pages suggest that you should exercise your political freedoms and write a formal complaint. This could be writing to your local MP, Congressman and/or Prime Minister to place pressure on international governments to ensure that China complies with CITES. It is also important to mention in the letter that a ban on farming for TCM is crucial. It must be introduced in conjunction with the current wildlife market ban. In the letter, it is vital to stress the importance of protecting both wildlife and humans.
Many of these wildlife charity websites have templates of letters or petitions ready to sign. Alternatively, you could use social media to directly contact and pressure governmental bodies and figures.
3. Avoid animal attractions
It is important to note that when travelling in East and South-East Asia, ensure that you do not visit ‘Tiger Temples’ or engage with the handling of cubs. From research, The Dodo has discovered that most of these places are covers for tiger farming. The money generated from tourism assists in the maintenance cost of the tigers who will later be killed for TCM or the trade of trophy heads, and skins. They are also rife for illegal trade of wildlife, which goes hand in hand with animal abuse. Stay away from these tourist attractions and inform others to do so too.
African Animal Imports
In light of COVID-19, there has been a lot of attention to the variety of animals being sold at Chinese wildlife markets. A variety of animals, whose natural habitats’ stretch far beyond the continent of Asia. As the population sizes of endangered species rapidly decrease from poaching in Asia. Instead of acknowledging the threat for these endangered species. We witness China turning a blind eye to the issue by expanding its sphere of imports to Africa and South America. However, out of the two, it is Africa that has taken the brunt of this draining of wildlife.
An example can be the sale of Pangolins at wildlife markets in China. Despite them being critically endangered, they are still the most trafficked mammal in the world. Of the eight species of Pangolin, four can be found in Asia and four in Africa. Their scales are used in TCM and their meat is considered a delicacy. The Asian population of Pangolin is almost extinct. So China has become one of the biggest importers of African Pangolins in the world.
Here we can see how the Wildlife Protection Law teamed with the government’s promotion of TCM has intensified the demand for legal and illegal wildlife imports from Africa. What is vital to note, is that not everyone in China consumes or wants to consume such exotic wildlife. It is not a daily staple or necessity. It is purely a superfluous part of some peoples’ diets. Considering this factor, it makes no sense why China continues to act irresponsibly and ignore wildlife concerns from conservationists. For the simple sake of consuming exotic wildlife.
As discussed above, the reversal of the 1993 ban on using tiger bones and rhino horn had an overwhelming impact on Tiger Farming. Nevertheless, that did not mean that the demand for Rhinos did not also fluctuate when the ban was lifted. Comparatively, there is a greater focus on Tiger Farming in China because we find more Tiger Farms than we do Rhino Farms. Both geographically and financially, Tigers are much easier to access for Chinese farming.
The Asian Rhino population is on the brink of extinction. In particular, the Sumatran and Javan populations are at the greatest risk from poaching. According to WWF, there are fewer than 100 Sumatran Rhinos in the world. In 2015, they were declared extinct in Malaysia. There are even fewer Javan Rhinos than Sumatran left in the world. This means that unless farms are willing to pay extortionate prices for these almost extinct Rhinos, they must have them imported from Africa. Another option that is not cost-effective.
Despite Rhino Farming being more difficult to sustain than Tiger Farming in China, unfortunately, it still exists. As long as there is a wealthy population in China, willing to pay top dollar for rhino horn, a market will continue to exist. The lift of the ban only encouraged it more.
The rhino horn has been used in TCM for centuries, with the belief that it treats a series of illnesses from hallucinations to possession by spirits. As ‘Save the Rhino’ emphasise: “Legitimising the use of rhino horn in TCM will likely increase the number of people wishing to use rhino horn.” Since 2018, the rhino horn has become such a commodity for the Chinese elite, that it is even being used in powdered form as a party drug.
Unfortunately, it is not only the elite desiring to reap the ‘benefits’ of rhino horn. The average person also wants to benefit from TCM’s promises of using rhino horn powder. Due to this rise in demand, the illegal trafficking of Rhinos and their horns have also flown up. The financial element is the leading incentive for wildlife traffickers, as a rhino horn can fetch up to $60,000 per KG.
Research conducted by the charity ‘Save the Rhino’ showed that there were a lot of grey areas in terms of China’s honesty regarding Southern White Rhino imports. For example, the figures recorded by China, of how many live Southern white rhinos were exported from South Africa to China between the years 2000-2016, are completely different from the figures recorded by South Africa. Under the destination category: ‘Breeding in captivity or artificial propagation’, China had recorded 35 White Rhinos. Whereas, South Africa had recorded 111.
Such gaps in the data are worrying as it makes it almost impossible to track the location of these animals. The lack of traceability leaves animal activists fearful that they could be subject to extreme abuse. Falsified documents could also imply that the illegal animal trafficking market is booming in China. Something which many conservationists have suspected.
The drive behind the illegal trafficking of animals from Africa into China, predominantly come from the demands from animal entertainment, TCM, and Trophy markets. All of which equates to a life of misery and suffering for these animals. Once the animals are inside China, it quickly becomes difficult to keep on top of their whereabouts and hold people to account, when there is no legal framework against animal cruelty.
Elephants are one of the most trafficked animals in China based on animal entertainment. Preferably taken as babies, they are removed from their mothers in the wild and imported to China, where they will undergo ‘spirit breaking’. Such brutal training allows them to be used in circuses, zoos and attractions, such as elephant rides. The extent of animal cruelty taken to tame an elephant is agonising to watch.
The Independent reported in 2018: “In the past two years, China is believed to have imported more than 80 live Asian elephants from Laos and almost 100 juvenile African elephants from Zimbabwe. Imports from Zimbabwe are legal, as the animals do not have the same protected status.”
However, as we can see from the White Rhino importation case, how can we be sure there were not more elephants imported? Secondly, was the true destination of all of these elephants the animal entertainment industry or were some sold for Ivory? The sad reality is that we do not know. What we can be certain about, is that mass importation of elephants is directly affecting the wild population figures negatively, which goes against international Treaties such as CITES.
Solutions for the Animal Rights Crisis in China
Concerning solutions, there are three key options:
1. State Sanctions
International states should be condemned for their irresponsible interactions with China. By putting pressure onto international bodies to sanction states that continue to sell endangered animals to China, we may be able to slow down the negative effects on wildlife populations. Considering that one of the greatest sources of poaching threats for endangered species comes from China. Hypothetically speaking, if no states decide to trade wildlife with China, then this will take a monumental strain off of the wild populations. Undoubtedly, there are still other sources of threat. But narrowing the scope of threats will be beneficial.
As mentioned earlier in this post, this can be done through writing or contacting governmental officials by hand or via social media. Protesting and sharing content online are also strong ways of spreading awareness and gaining the attention of states.
2. Legal Revisions for State Council of China
As TCM is one of the biggest motivations behind importing endangered animals, it makes the most sense to push for the Wildlife Protection Law to be amended. If TCM is removed as a justification for farming animals. Then there should be no need to have more imported. It is also important to focus on permanently enacting the wildlife ban for consumption. So that when the Corona craze eventually blows over, China cannot revert this ban and use consumption of wildlife as a justification for importing endangered species. To do so would be trivial.
The implementation of a legal framework to protect animals against cruelty is vital for China. Conjecturally speaking, if every country cut China off in terms of wildlife trade. Unfortunately, there would still be a large number of animals within captivity that could be bred or have been bred. Accordingly, by introducing a basic Animal Rights Act and an official body to monitor this, we can aim to minimise the extent of abuse that these animals are exposed to in China. We cannot remove the endangered animals from China, but we can push to see them receive better protections.
3. Boycott Animal Entertainment
Just as it was mentioned above for Tiger Farming, when you are travelling in East and South-East Asia, you mustn’t interact with zoos, circuses or elephant rides. The more people stop engaging with such cruelty traps, the fewer animals will be needed to be imported for animal entertainment purposes. Share videos on social media, which expose the cruelty that goes on behind the flashing lights. Spread awareness where possible and encourage others not to associate with such markets. Education is key.