Sunday, February 12, 2012

Traditional Chinese Herbs and Our Obligation

"Our task must be to free ourselves from our prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty." - Albert Einstein

I have recently found myself struggling to reconcile my two loves: the first being traditional Chinese medicine (TCM); the second being the beauty of nature and need to conserve and save endangered species on an earth that is being rapidly being plundered. As an avid animal rights supporter, a quick search into the use of endangered animals sold as TCM medicinal herbs on the black market is enough to bring me to tears.

It perplexes me that a system that has developed from the observation of nature and the Taoist philosophy of acknowledging the interconnectedness of all beings, is responsible for such irresponsible practices. This then needlessly harms the reputation of TCM practitioners who practice ethically. Unfortunately the illegal trade of wildlife ingredients continues to support these unsustainable practices.

Rhino horns, shark fins, seahorses, and tigers are just a few that longstanding cultural beliefs and the economic drive behind organised crime, have been responsible for tragically pushing these species onto the endangered list. And unfortunately the rarer something is, the more valuable it becomes. Research estimates this illicit trade in wildlife to be worth US$20 billion globally each year*. Increased demand in Asia, a lack of law enforcement, weak penalties for poachers, opportunism amongst traders and a lack of education amongst consumers and practitioners are all contributing to the problem.

These products are now widely being described as ‘status products’; the majority of which are being used and consumed by younger, wealthy professionals – shark fin soup being among the most popular. It is a myth that they are being used by the older generations, as they were not widely used in traditional formulas or medicines. Conditions that they are purported to treat can be treated with alternatives that are cheaper and more effective.

Some conservation activists views are on the opposite end of the spectrum, saying TCM herbs should be boycotted altogether; making it a scapegoat for international conservation issues. This approach however fails to realise that by working with TCM practitioners and not against them, we then have an effective tool for eliminating the demand.

To the practitioner –
Despite the trade of endangered species and plants in Australia being illegal, a product cannot be assumed it has been legally acquired, even if it is purchased within Australia, and documentation from the seller must be acquired in order to be sure of this.

‘Under international and Australian wildlife protection laws, it is illegal to import, export or trade in items that are on the CITES list of endangered species unless the appropriate permits have been issued. CITES refers to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.’ *

The Australian Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine Association (AACMA) has created an Endangered Species Certification Scheme in order to address the illegal trade of endangered wildlife. The scheme is open to TCM practitioners, traders and other organisations and individuals involved in the research, recommendation, prescription, supply, import and export of traditional Chinese medicines. Those signing the declaration are then able to advertise that they only trade in legally obtained plants and products.

To read more about the scheme visit the AACMA website here -

To the consumer –
To those of you who are prescribed Chinese Herbs from a practitioner – ask if they are a part of the above scheme, and demand sustainably produced herbs and organic products where possible. It is the consumer that sustains the trade.

As a budding TCM student I hope to advocate the use of sustainable practices and educate consumers and practitioners on the importance of these issues. My wish is that for Chinese Medicine to be recognised as the centuries old, valuable body of medical practice that it is.



*Wyler, L. S. & Sheikh, P. A. Congressional Research Service (2009).

* Nature Journal -