Drugs derived from the organs of endangered animals are often used in traditional medicine to reduce fevers, headaches and other illnesses, particularly in East and Southeast Asia. Highly sought-after products include rhinoceros horn powder, saiga antelope horn powder and bear bile crystals. This soaring demand is driving many of these creatures to the brink of extinction, despite protective legislation from CITES and the ICUN Red List.
Safeguarding these medicinal species is one of the greatest challenges faced by animal conservationists today. Yet traditional medicines have been in use for over 3,000 years and millions of people still rely on them to sustain their health and well-being. Now a new study from Chinese researchers proposes a possible way of dealing with this issue: by introducing new techniques to clamp down on illegal trade and by developing alternative drugs from other non-threatened species.
Traditional medicines usually occur in the form of powders, tablets and capsules, which makes it very difficult to identify the particular species from which these materials are derived. However, continued advancements in genetic technology means that the trade of wildlife can now realistically be monitored through the use of DNA barcoding.
DNA barcoding involves DNA sequencing and the characterisation of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) genes, specifically the cytochrome c oxidase I (COI) gene. This particular gene can precisely and consistently identify animal species, making the entire process an extremely reliable tool for customs officials and an important deterrent against wildlife trafficking.
The other tactic proposed aims to identify potential alternatives to threatened species using pharmacological tests. Ideally these substitutes would be from a closely related domestic animal that could relieve pressure on the endangered species. For example, the domestic goat may be a good substitute for the saiga antelope, and the Chinese softshell turtle for the Chinese pangolin.
Any alternative drug developed from domestic animals must have the same biological function as those derived from threatened species. However, this research is still in the early days: the exact mechanism of many of these substances have yet to be clarified and clinical trials will be needed before any new drug is put on the market. Nonetheless, both of the approaches proposed in this study offer a realistic way of helping to conserve threatened medicinal animals, whilst also preserving traditional medicine practices.
Reference: Luo JY, Yan D, Song JY, Zhang D, Xing XY, Han YM, Yang MH, Dong XP, Peng C, Chen SL, & Xiao XH (2013). A strategy for trade monitoring and substitution of the organs of threatened animals. Scientific Reports, 3 PMID: 24173429