Perhaps you know about the impact that Chinese Traditional Medicine – TCM – has had on seahorses.
In TCM, dried seahorses have been consumed pretty well forever, mainly as an aphrodisiac for men. A legal, unregulated market exploded in the 1990s, and seahorses were stripped from reefs, mangroves and grass beds around the world – perhaps as many as 150 million collected, dried, and eventually sold per year for about $600 per kg. And even if aphrodisiacs were a defensible argument for killing other species – and they certainly aren’t – there is no evidence that dried seahorses have any such effect. The same is true of course for all the other traditional marine aphrodisiacs – sea turtle eggs, oysters, abalone, seal penises, lobsters, shark fins, an almost endless list of marine species.
More than 50 seahorse species exist, diverse, alien and beautiful. We almost lost most of them, particularly the larger species, more valuable in TCM. Finally protected in 2004 by CITES in 2004, their import, sale and export is now regulated, even in China. Yet in Taiwan, Hong Kong, mainland China, Vietnam, Korea, Japan, and in Chinese communities in cities around the world, dried or powdered seahorses remain easy to find in Chinese medicine stores: the black market never closes.
True, extinction is now less likely – captive seahorse farming is improving, marine protected areas are often actually protected, ecotourists like to see seahorses alive in their natural habitats, and of course Viagra has helped. Unfortunately, even harmful traditions can be very slow to die.
If only we learned from such an example to avoid repeating it on others. Yet amazingly in the past few years, the gill rakers of manta and mobula rays have become extraordinarily popular as a new source of Chinese medicines. This time though it isn’t even traditional – instead it is a case of highly aggressive and successful industry marketing. People are trusting, probably ignorant of what exactly they are ingesting as medicine, but they are persuaded that the ground up gill rakers may cure just about everything: chicken pox, cancer, swine flu, throat and skin ailments, male kidney issues, fertility problems, immune system depletion, excess toxins, circulation challenges.
The truly discouraging aspect of this is that, just as with seahorse aphrodisiac properties, there is no evidence of any health benefits. None. Yet the rays are caught, the gill rakers cut out, the bodies discarded, and the populations are decimated.
Of course we all want want to be healthy humans. But is it too much to ask that there be good evidence the health products we select are actually beneficial? Should we not know or care that we are driving other species to extinction, disrupting ecological communities? And why, after all the experience we have had with marketing and advertizing, do we believe any of it?
Naturopathy and Traditional Chinese (Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese) Medicine are thriving. The nutraceutical industry is booming. Where it’s herbal and sustainable, perhaps the lack of supporting evidence doesn’t matter so much. But to wantonly kill animals – and the list is very long – for their non-existent health benefits is madness.
Tradition is not the problem: it’s our greed and ignorance, and we know better.
And in this case, taking action is incredibly easy: we just stop.