A team of undercover conservationists tackles the demand for endangered species in traditional Chinese medicines
By Douglas Fox
Illustration by © Christopher Zacharow/SIS
In the cool days of April 2003, two pony-tailed women strolled the damp streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown past curbside bins of shriveled ginseng and cured fish. Occasionally they ducked into a cramped medicinal shop, browsing its shelves, reading medicine ingredients in Mandarin, and asking about remedies for a relative’s arthritic knee. Now and then, they giggled. Among the anthill of humanity that is Chinatown, these girl friends out for a day of shop-till-you-drop were barely a blip on the radar, but below the surface there was something more. These women were actually undercover workers with TRAFFIC, a joint program of the World Wildlife Fund and the World Conservation Union (IUCN). Posing as customers, they were investigating the sale of traditional Chinese medicines (TCMs) derived from tiger bone, rhino horn, and other endangered animals. The purpose of their investigation was to measure the success of an audacious project that had been running for five years.
Despite the advent of the CITES (The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) treaty and laws to combat smuggling, the illegal trade in tiger and rhino parts has continued. An undercover study by TRAFFIC in 1996-97 found tiger bone and rhino horn freely available in Chinatowns in San Francisco, New York City, and five other cities across North America. It was in response to this grim finding that TRAFFIC attempted a new approach here in San Francisco: shrink the supply of illegal tiger and rhino medicines by drying up the public demand for them.
And that, in the face of a 3,000-year tradition, was no small undertaking.
But TRAFFIC approached this problem of age-old consumerism with the full-on finesse of modern marketing. With the savvy of a soda company launching its latest and greatest answer to Coke Classic, TRAFFIC first probed the Chinese community’s beliefs through market research. Armed with some key insights, they then partnered with a community leader-the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine (ACTCM)-to roll out an ad campaign promoting the preservation of tiger and rhino as cultural icons. Importantly, the campaign was orchestrated from within the community rather than imposed by outsiders.
TRAFFIC’s undercover survey in 2003 brought home the report card. Just six years earlier, tiger or rhino had been available at nearly half the shops in San Francisco, but that was no longer true. Although plenty of tiger and rhino products were still available in New York City, where no campaign had occurred, these medicines had virtually vanished from the stores of San Francisco.
This story of how conservation went retail in order to reverse a 3,000-year demand curve holds lessons for others trying to ease the conflicts between people’s day-to-day practices and endangered species conservation.
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Chinese medicine is an art of options. For each medicine, there’s a list of time-tested replacements; for tiger bone there are at least ten, including leopard bone, cow bone, and some herbs. Yet despite those alternatives, there lurks a certain subliminal preference for tiger. Walk into any TCM shop in San Francisco’s Chinatown and you’ll find the shelves dotted with boxes, bottles, and packets displaying the colors and images of tigers-a potent reminder of the tiger’s special status in Chinese culture, that the tiger has no equal.
Perhaps it’s this prejudice, buried deep in the minds of millions, that has helped drive the continued poaching, smuggling, and selling of tigers for TCM. Conservationists were anecdotally aware of the continuing tiger trade throughout the early 1990s, yet no one knew its magnitude. So in late 1996, TRAFFIC launched an undercover survey of TCM shops across North America to find out.
In San Francisco, 42 percent of shops were found to be selling medicines containing or claiming to contain tiger bone, and 5 percent were selling medicines containing or claiming to contain rhino horn. In New York City, the numbers were 83 percent for tiger bone and 8 percent for rhino horn.
The availability of tiger bone and rhino horn as well as deer musk, bear bile and leopard bone was widespread not only in San Francisco and New York but also in the five other Chinatowns that were surveyed-Atlanta, Los Angeles, Seattle, Toronto, and Vancouver.
As that first survey was still unearthing the sheer scope of the North American tiger and rhino trade, TRAFFIC made the pivotal decision to delve deeper: in order to understand the personal motivations and attitudes underlying this trade, they commissioned a market research firm to conduct a nationwide study of TCM- and conservation-related beliefs within the Chinese community. Hundreds of individuals were interviewed in English, Cantonese, or Mandarin throughout the United States. In addition, focus groups were conducted in San Francisco. A parallel telephone survey was also conducted in Hong Kong.
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TRAFFIC’s market research study revealed no shortage of contradictions. Most respondents understood the concept of endangered species and believed that it was important to preserve wildlife, says Andrea Gaski, the TRAFFIC officer who oversaw the North American study and who has since moved to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
These same respondents were familiar with animal-derived TCMs such as tiger bone, deer tail, and snake bile and generally viewed them as effective (18 percent of them had used tiger bone at least once). Yet aside from these and a few other exceptions, people had little knowledge of what most TCMs actually contained. They generally didn’t view TCM as containing endangered species, nor were they aware that specific species, such as tiger, were even endangered.
Many people stated that if they learned a medicine they were taking did contain an endangered species, they would stop taking it, yet this wasn’t universal. Twelve percent said they would continue taking the medicine as before, 19 percent said they would continue using it in reduced quantities, and 27 percent either didn’t know what they would do or would decide based on the specifics of the situation.
There seemed to be several explanations for this ambivalence. Some people, although reluctant to consume endangered species, still put their own health ahead of the health of those species. But more importantly, many people doubted whether TCM posed any real conservation threat.
Claims of TCM-related conservation threats were viewed as Western prejudice, not reflective of the facts. “You don’t kill the animals yourself,” argued one participant. “It has already been killed, so you just buy the product.” Many people viewed TCM as consuming only a small number of animals-an insignificant matter compared to other threats such as habitat destruction.
All told, the Chinese living in Hong Kong and the United States weren’t very different from each other-both groups shared beliefs known to exist in the broader U.S. population. “People never associated the animal with the product they were buying,” says Gaski. “They didn’t see the association of their purchase with the whole market, the demand, or the poaching. That’s a common in the wildlife trade.”
Study participants were, however, aware that TCM provided alternatives to animal products such as tiger bone, and they saw these alternatives as a solution to any conservation threat posed by TCM. Yet they cautioned that, in order to be adopted, these alternatives must be equally effective and must be recommended by a TCM practitioner or family member whom they trusted.
Clearly, TRAFFIC’s investigation had revealed opportunities for influencing the Chinese community, but one question remained: how to approach this community, which-like others- distrusted outside intervention.
The answer to TRAFFIC’s dilemma lay in San Francisco’s trendy Potrero Hill neighborhood, on De Haro Street next to the Anchor Steam Brewery. The American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine is here in a modest wood building shaded by a bulbous brown awning. It was the first of 52 TCM colleges in North America to offer a masters degree. It is a pillar of Chinese medicine in the western hemisphere, and it was TRAFFIC’s calling card for reaching the Chinese community.
Today I’m visiting the college’s headquarters to speak with Lixin (pronounced Lee-Sheen) Huang, president of the ACTCM. Huang was contacted in 1997 by TRAFFIC, which wanted to partner with the college on a campaign to reduce local consumption of tiger and rhino parts. It was an auspicious beginning; as the two organizations hammered out the campaign’s details in the closing weeks of 1997, the Chinese Year of the Tiger was drawing closer.
And so, in February 1998, the New Year’s parade poured through the streets of China-town with streamers and papier m?ch? tigers, and a press conference announced the launch of a new campaign: Turn the Year of the Tiger into a Year for the Tiger.
The campaign was built around four messages. First, the survival of tigers is threatened, and these animals-icons of Chinese culture-should be preserved for future generations. Second, TCM is contributing to the decline of tigers. Third, the trade in tiger parts is illegal and carries stiff penalties. And fourth, TCM provides effective alternatives to tiger products.
By the time the campaign was unveiled, plenty of footwork had already occurred. Key community leaders representing local merchant, herbalist, political, and cultural groups had signed on and, as the campaign kicked off, their support was made public. Herbalist groups provided forums for educational workshops on wildlife laws and TCM alternatives. Programs at Chinese language schools taught children the importance of saving tigers. A picture book about a tiger cub was sent home with children. Thousands of families attended a special Tiger Day at the zoo. Children participated in poster contests promoting tiger conservation; winning posters were printed and posted around town.
Thousands of community members were persuaded to sign pledges promising to stop using tiger products. Every herbal shop was visited in person by a campaign representative, and shop owners and practitioners were encouraged to sign pledges not to sell or prescribe tiger products.
These shops were, of course, a key target, and influencing them involved a mix of advocating reduced consumer demand, using peer pressure, shifting public opinion, and applying personal persuasion on the merits of conservation. “Instead of going directly to that group and getting rejected,” Huang tells me, “we built community and built consumer awareness, so that when we reached that group we got no rejection, but a willingness with the community.”
Campaign achievements reverberated through stories and ads in local Chinese-language publications. And although January 1999 saw the Year of the Tiger give way to the Year of the Rabbit, the campaign was continued at a lower decibel level and was expanded to include rhino products.
TRAFFIC’s undercover survey in Spring 2003 provided a measure of the campaign’s success. Availability of tiger bone had dropped from 42 percent of San Francisco shops in 1997 to 3 percent in 2003. And rhino horn, available in 5 percent of shops in 1997, had completely vanished by 2003. It’s true that availability of tiger bone had also declined in New York City, but even so, it was still found in 41 percent of the shops there in 2003-underlining the importance of the campaign in San Francisco.
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Leigh Henry, one of TRAFFIC’s two undercover shoppers in 2003, offers a more personal assessment of the campaign’s success. In New York, she was often told that tiger bone was unavailable, yet shopkeepers didn’t actually say it was illegal. But in San Francisco, where the campaign had run for five years, the community truly seemed to have absorbed the message: Henry and her partner were constantly told that tiger and rhino were not only unavailable but, more importantly, illegal.
“One guy actually lectured us,” says Henry, “about conserving wildlife for our children. It was thrilling for us, because it was pretty much verbatim the message we’d been putting out there.”
The irony is that in order to be accepted by the community, this message couldn’t come from conservationists. Indeed, many of the trade organizations that ended up backing the campaign usually steer clear of conservation groups. “They feel that being in the same position as the World Wildlife Fund affects their business,” says Huang. “However, because the campaign came from the ACTCM, it was immediately accepted.”
Another factor for success was the campaign’s adherence to the mantra of marketing: a simple message, repeated over and over again. In this case, it meant focusing on tiger and rhino rather than giving in to the temptation to include other medicines such as sea horses, musk, and bear bile.
That was a natural dividing line, since tiger and rhino products are categorically prohibited and therefore amenable to marketing sound bites. By comparison, with bear bile and musk, says Henry, “it depends on where it came from, how it came into the country, and whether there were permits-and that’s confusing.” Deciding the breadth of the campaign was also a question of what the community was ready for. “If people see that you’re putting out 10 or 20 animals,” says Huang, “they think you’re pulling back Chinese medicine.”
But a campaign so focused on tiger and rhino may have produced one unintended consequence. While tiger bone sales plummeted in San Francisco, the availability of leopard bone shot up almost as quickly, from 5 percent in 1997 to 27 percent in 2003. The local market may have responded to the campaign by simply replacing tiger with leopard.
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As I chat one Thursday afternoon with Daniel Jiao, a clinical herbalist at the ACTCM, I twiddle one of those telltale packets of leopard medicine in my fingers.
The campaign in San Francisco was clearly a huge success, but there are still plenty of lingering questions, and this packet of leopard bone is at the center of them. It’s true that you can find high-end leopard medicines that cost as much as you want to pay, but this one is low-end. It cost a mere 65 cents, even though on the Asian market, the raw leopard bones that it’s supposedly made from fetch around US$300 per kilogram.
“At that price,” Jiao chides me, “it’s not likely to contain those bones.” The other possibility, he says, is that the content of leopard bone is so low that it’s an ingredient more in symbol than in substance-perhaps just one gram dropped into a 10,000-liter vat in the factory in China. So which is it?
The fact is that Jiao will never know, and I will never know, and neither will the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is charged with enforcing bans on the tiger, rhino, and leopard trade. This is because tiger, leopard, and other bones are so harshly processed during the manufacture of packaged medicines in China that technology has devised no way of distinguishing cat bone from cow bone from tiger bone, neither by DNA nor by microscopic differences.
That not only creates a gap in law enforcement-for leopard bone, the government must prove the medicine contains the real McCoy-but it also limits what we can know about the TCM trade and how it responds to laws and campaigns like the one in San Francisco.
For example, as TCM shops in San Francisco stopped selling tiger and started selling leopard, what was really happening? What we do know is that some of the same brands of medicine that used to list tiger as an ingredient switched to listing leopard instead. But why? Did those factories in China sense the shock-waves from North America and respond by renouncing tiger bone and using leopard instead? Did they revise their label but continue using tiger anyway? Or did they never contain so much as a furball of tiger in the first place?
For the moment, we can only guess. The leopard whose dust now rests in the packet of medicine in my hand-if indeed it was a leopard-probably lived and died half a world away, in India or Nepal. From there, its skeleton was smuggled overland to a factory in China, changing hands ten or more times. In China it was cooked and packaged into a bone-healing plaster that was imported into the U.S. in some dark corner of a cargo container.
Here in San Francisco, conservation has made an admirable foray into the marketplace and into the mind of the consumer. Consumers have been convinced of their intimate connection to poaching in Asia. But safeguarding those gains may eventually depend on understanding how those distant peaks and troughs of demand and disinterest in North America are transmitted through one link to another, to the far side of the Pacific Ocean.
About the Author
Douglas Fox is a regular contributor to Conservation In Practice. He has also written for New Scientist, Discover, and Natural History. He lives in Northern California.