In 2005 I spent three weeks in China, attending conferences in Nanjing and Beijing, and travelling to several other cities. At one point I participated in a hike about 90 kilometres outside Beijing, in an area where the great wall of China is quite dilapidated, unlike in the more touristy areas. It was an enjoyable hike of more than 30 kilometres, led by a young Chinese woman, through forests and gorges. What struck me about halfway through the day was that, compared to hiking in South Africa, there was hardly any sign of wildlife – no antelope tracks or lizards, and very few birds. When I asked the hike leader why this was the case, she smiled ruefully and simply said: “They’ve all been eaten”.
The human animal far exceeds the danger posed by so-called predators like sharks, lions and tigers; in fact, we are undeniably at the top of the list of predators as far as viciousness and relentlessness in decimating competing predators are concerned. And if that is not enough, humans have proceeded to exterminate other animal species (and one could add plants, considering the destruction of the world’s rain forests) to such a degree that species extinction now ranks as one of the most egregious ecological threats.
One might wonder how this could be the case. It is easy to demonstrate, actually. Think of the game known as Jenga, where one constructs a tower of rectangular wooden blocks, and each player, in turn, removes one block at a time. Sooner or later the structure will be sufficiently weakened to collapse, and the player who precipitates this by pulling out the ‘fatal’ block, loses. The ‘food chain’ of species in nature is similar: if too many of them, like the Jenga blocks, are removed, the whole ecological ‘food chain’ is likely to collapse. And at present, largely due to polluting human industrial activities, deforestation, hunting, fishing, and so on, the extinction rate stands at more than 110 species going extinct per million, per year. The point at which this rate of extinction starts becoming dangerously destabilising, is 10 species going extinct per million annually, so that the present rate exceeds this red-alert point more than ten times.
In a recent edition of TIME magazine (January 30, 2017) there is an article that makes pretty grim reading on this topic. It is preceded by a ‘Ticker’ news-snippet (p. 6) headed “60% of primates face extinction”, which reads: “More than half of the world’s primates – including apes, monkeys and lemurs – are threatened with extinction, new research says. Of the 504 species studied, 60% are on course to die out because of deforestation, hunting and climate change.”
This horrific scenario (to animal and nature lovers, at least) is given more flesh, as it were, by the longer article (pp. 10-11), titled “Traditional Chinese medicine is killing the world’s wildlife”, by Charlie Campbell. In the course of his investigation, Campbell visited a Beijing branch of the Chinese Guo Lizhuang penis restaurant, where especially older men will pay hundreds of US dollars to pep up their sexual energy levels. As far as implicit belief in the capacity of this “traditional” source of libido goes, one statement by the restaurant manager, Zhang Yang, says it all (p. 10): If you handle tiger penis properly, and mix together with Chinese herbs, it really has the best possible effect – much better than Viagra…Lots of people come here asking for tiger penis, but it’s illegal, so we don’t sell it.”
Two things strike one about this statement – if they don’t sell tiger penis because it is illegal, there must be several other types of penis they can and do do sell to remain in business, and there are laws that protect tigers in China. Regarding the first point, one gathers from the article that Zhang stocks bull penis, deer penis and snake penis, among others, of which the latter has become quite popular to consume because it is seen as imparting fertility, in view of China’s termination of its one-child policy and the resultant wish among many people to have a second child.
The second issue, that of laws protecting wildlife from exploitation for medicinal or other purposes, is more complicated. Campbell notes that, although traditional Chinese medical practitioners (TCM) were responsive to the threat it posed to wild animals in the 1980s, removing rhino from their list of pharmacopeia and placing it on the strongest protection level, CITES Index 1, today the situation has deteriorated – largely because of China’s speedy economic development and the increasing buying power of 1.3 billion people. This has reached the point where TCM can no longer rein in the colossal demand for animal parts. And although China reviewed its Wildlife Law last year, it left so many loopholes that endangered animal-farming is allowed for “special purposes”, leading to the establishment of about 200 commercial Chinese farms where thousands of tigers are raised for medicinal use of their body-parts.
This may seem like a solution to killing these animals in the wild, but as Campbell notes (p. 11), the existence of these farms cultivates the perception, that these exotic animal parts are valuable and hence desirable. This further exacerbates the decimation of wildlife. Probably the greatest factor giving impetus to the process driving the targeting of increasingly scarce wild animals, is the fictitious idea, that the body-parts of these creatures are a panacea for every conceivable ailment. As Campbell phrases it (p. 10):
“…Many ordinary Chinese labor under the false idea that TCM ascribes extraordinary health benefits to rare animal parts, creating a big headache for genuine practitioners and concerned conservationists. TCM’s resurgence has spawned unregulated quackery that, in turn, is related to an uptick in wildlife trafficking – a nefarious global trade that, the UN says, already generates $19 billion a year. The most trafficked animal on earth, for instance, is the pangolin, or scaly anteater. An estimated 1 million of these creatures have been plucked from the wild across Asia and Africa for consumption almost exclusively in China, where many people believe their scales can be used to treat everything from rheumatoid arthritis to inflammation. Last September the Convention on Illegal Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in South Africa banned all trade in all eight species of pangolin.”
Ironically, it does not always have a negative or detrimental effect on only the animals involved; sometimes it affects human health negatively too, as the case of “manta-ray gill raker plates” shows. These, Campbell explains (p. 11), are the “thin filaments these majestic creatures use to filter food from seawater”, and rumour has it that they are a cure for everything from chickenpox to cancer – a blatant lie on the part of people selling seafood. As a result, these gill raker plates sell for the exorbitant price of up to $500 per kilogram in the southern Chinese province of Guandong.
To add insult to injury, when the organisation, WildAid, performed tests on these body-parts of manta rays, their results revealed high levels of very dangerous toxins such as arsenic, cadmium and lead. Hence, instead of aiding mothers who are breast-feeding, as they are supposed to, they actually have a very bad effect on their breast milk, and hence, their babies. It seems, therefore, that it is not only the animals who lose in this invidious, greed-driven trade of death; humans are losers too. But for as long as money is worshipped, and people remain gullible regarding the supposed health-benefits of animals’ body-parts, it will continue.