Hell on the Beasts


The Cold War's end has been hell on the beasts. Freedom to travel and rising affluence have given more Chinese, both on the mainland and in Taiwan, the opportunity to sample the gustatory pleasures and curative powers of tigers, rhinoceroses, giant salamanders, pangolins (a scaly anteater said to be yummy) and other animals -- some of them on the endangered-species lists.

Illicit trade in animals and animal parts may amount to $5 to $10 billion a year, according to Traffic International, which monitors contraband flows. That would rank wildlife third behind drugs and armaments among the world's illegal businesses.

Taiwanese, as consumers and traders, figure disproportionately in a worldwide network stretching from Africa to Siberia to the Sino-Vietnamese border. South African police report that Taiwanese were involved in every case of rhinoceros poaching prosecuted since 1989.

It is the rhino's misfortune to be regarded in traditional Chinese medicine as a four-footed pharmacopoeia. The horn is considered an aphrodisiac. (It, or something, works for rhinos, who are said to be able to copulate for up to an hour at a time.) Rhino toenail reduces fever, the blood is a tonic and the hide a salve for skin ailments.

Chinese emperors -- and some European kings -- drank from rhino-horn cups in the belief that they could detect the presence of poison. That much, as least, may have been true. The alkaloid poisons of ancient times would have reacted visibly upon contact with the keratin and gelatin in rhino horn.

Traditional Chinese medicine has a very long pedigree; its first text book is "The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine," which supposedly dates to about 2600 B.C. It explained many ailments as organic expressions of a patient's psychic state: Gall-bladder illness, for example, is attributed to unsatisfied ambition and pent-up anger.

Over the years, remedies piled up. A Chinese medical encyclopedia published in 1977 contains 2,700 pages listing 5,767 substances with medicinal properties. Most of these are herbs, and Western medical authorities increasingly are inclined to agree that they work well against some problems.

The jury is still out, at least in the West, about the efficacy of Three Snake Gall and Fritillary Powder, an expectorant made, as the name implies, from the gall bladders of snakes. It is widely prescribed against the bronchitis that afflicts so many Chinese -- in part because a habit of public spitting, to relieve the bronchitis, keeps them reinfecting each other.

A powder made from the shin bones of tigers, according to the encyclopedia, "should be stir-fried with vinegar or wine or without additives to dissipate fever and fortify the sinews and bones." And in a particularly literal-minded application of the old principle that you are what you eat, tiger penis is said to promote virility.

Taiwan's isolation and China's poverty once put these nostrums beyond practical reach, for they are difficult to obtain and stratospherically costly. A vial of tiger-bone powder can set you back $410, and tiger penises are available only sporadically. (There are only about 5,000 tigers left in the world, and half of them are female.) Tiger meat for the dinner table costs $35 a pound.

Two ounces of rhino-horn tablets are priced at $900. A whole three-pound African rhino horn retails in the pharmacy for $5,000. An Asian horn, thought to be more potent, may cost ten times as much.

Other dinner treats include giant salamander at $14 a pound wholesale, live pangolins at $70 each and bear paws at $180 apiece. Gibbons, slow lorises and other rare primates pass through the black markets of Guangzhou (Canton).

But almost never pandas. Chinese authorities have executed dealers in panda hides or panda meat.

And the crackdown has started elsewhere, too. In the past year, Taiwan, which wants to join international trade and monetary agencies, has started to play by international rules respecting endangered or rare animals. Pharmacies have been raided and tiger and rhino parts confiscated and burned.

Enforcement of international agreements may save the tigers and rhinoceroses. Or it may not. Experience with elephants since the ban on ivory trade took effect in 1989 has been discouraging. Laws, alas, don't make poachers more virtuous, they make them more crafty.

Another approach might be to legalize the trade in wildlife so that those who profit by it have an incentive to keep the species thriving instead of going for the quick rip-off. Legal, regulated catches haven't exactly solved the problems of Chesapeake Bay oysters and rockfish, but most watermen and conservationists would agree that they work better than a flat ban.

Hal Piper edits The Sun's Opinion * Commentary page.

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