Wildlife in traditional medicine – why changing consumer behaviour is critical and how a new online tool might help
By Gilbert Sape
While thousands of animals are still suffering needlessly for the sake of traditional medicine, our research shows that the majority of consumers are willing to change their habits and switch to plant-based alternatives. We're helping accelerate this change with a new online tool.
Traditional medicine is global
When we think of traditional medicine, we often have China in mind. However, traditional medicine products and practices are also used in Africa, Latin America, Middle East, Europe and many other countries in Asia. In short, the whole world uses some form of traditional medicine.
Based on our own research, 23% of general population in the United Kingdom, United States, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada and Brazil have used traditional medicine products at some point in their lives. While the majority of traditional medicine product is plant-based, 35% of traditional medicine users we surveyed said they have used traditional medicine that contain animal parts.
It’s not just purchasing traditional medicine products containing wildlife derivates that supports an industry causing suffering to wild animals. Tourists who visit attractions such as lion petting or walking with lions in South Africa are also contributing to the wildlife traditional medicine trade, as many of the animals used in these experiences will go on to be killed for their bones which are exported for use in traditional medicine. By enabling the monetisation of young lions before they’re sold for their bones, tourists are making this cruel supply chain even more profitable.
A consumer revolution
In China, the proportion of traditional medicine ingredients derived from animals is very small, around 12%, while herbal medicine accounts for around 87% of all resources. While this percentage seems minor, the impact on animals is massive. It involves millions of wild animals including bears, tigers, lions and more being farmed at an industrial scale or poached from the wild for their parts and derivatives.
The animals caught up in this industry are suffering to an almost unimaginable degree. Big cats in farming facilities are torn away from their mothers soon after birth and forced to live in cramped, unhygienic cages. They are often inbred, starved and diseased, and live short lives of complete misery until they are killed for their bones. Bears too are forced to live out their lives in tiny cages, but theirs is a longer life of suffering, as bear bile is slowly and painfully extracted from them over a lifetime. And that’s just part of the industry.
Thankfully, due to higher awareness on animal welfare issues that surround wildlife farming, consumers in Vietnam and China are moving towards plant-based alternatives. Both countries are hotspots for wildlife use in traditional medicine.
Based on our research, 68% of consumers of big cats products (e.g. tiger and lion bones) and 72% non-consumers in Vietnam are willing to buy plant-based substitutes if the price is cheaper. In China, more than 50% are open to use plant-based substitutes.
Many consumers are aware of cruelty and conservation issues surrounding the bear bile trade. Based on our survey, there’s a willingness to shift to plant-based alternatives if consumers knew of them and were convinced that they are just as effective.
Meanwhile, a joint team of researchers from the University of Oxford, in collaboration with World Animal Protection, has shown that the impacts of some traditional medicines on animals could be combatted by offering herbal substitutes to regular consumers. When offered herbal substitutes for animal-based medicines, regular consumers were the most enthusiastic group: 89% said they would buy them.
Information is the key to change
This data show that people are willing to shift to plant-based alternatives if they have enough information, and the key to getting them this information is through their traditional medicine doctors. Traditional medicine doctors have a huge influence on what consumers choose to buy, so it’s extremely important we raise awareness among them and provide access to information on plant-based alternatives. Our team in China has already made great progress in convincing traditional medicine doctors to promote plant-based alternatives. Based on our research, 85.2% of the traditional medicine practitioners in China say they will minimise or refrain from prescribing medicines with wild animal derivatives, while 54.3% of them will consider prescribing alternatives with similar or better efficacy.
We are also at the forefront of changing consumer demand through providing an online platform on plant-based alternatives to wildlife used in traditional medicine. This platform aims to help millions of consumers and traditional medicine doctors to avoid wild animal ingredients without having to abandon Traditional Chinese Medicine. Based on a traditional medicine expert researched database, the platform enables consumers and practitioners to easily identify non-animal alternatives to common wildlife ingredients that are still used in traditional medicine today.
Ending the global wildlife trade to protect our health
As COVID-19 sweeps across the globe, consumers are becoming more aware than ever of the dangers of exploiting wild animals, including for use in traditional medicine. Shifting to plant-based alternatives is not only good for animals, it is also good for human health and the planet.
If you support this monumental global change for good, add your name to our petition to the G20 to end the cruel and dangerous global wildlife trade forever:
Due to higher awareness of animal welfare issues, consumers are moving towards plant-based alternatives