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Dried flying lizards
Chinese medicine shops often sell things like dried starfish, bear paws, dried snakes, starfish flakes, dried scorpions, horse gallstones, rats fetuses picked in oil, turtle shells, powdered snakes, powdered horns, fuzzy elk antlers, frogs, birds' beaks, snakeskins, umbilical cords from donkeys and herring spawn wrapped in kelp — or medicines that contain these things as one of their ingredients. Medicines made from animals often purport to have properties which are associated with the animal.

Elephant skin is taken for acne; monkey heads are eaten for headaches and turtle heads are consumed for labor pains. Snakes are supposed to make one stronger. Snake glands are good for the eyes. Powdered snake gall bladder is reputed to be a cure for bronchitis. Coin snakes are one of the more popular remedies. Held together with sticks, they are sold coiled up with the head popping out of the middle and fact look like black quarters. They are boiled into a thick black liquid that is sipped like tea.

Chinese believe that eating turtles is supposed to make one live longer. Turtles have long been associated with longevity. Tons of turtles from five different species are shipped from Malaysia and Vietnam to China. Turtle blood is available at Wall-Marts in China. Lizards are taken for high blood pressure and the skulls of gazelles are ground into powder to make people strong. Bull gallstones are highly valued and very expensive. They are yellowish and about the size of nickels and are used to treat fevers and inflammation

Insects used Chinese medicine include pulverized weaver ants for asthma, powered cockroaches for stroke and silkworm feces for typhus. Dried cicadas are boiled in a soup to improve eyesight. Bee venom, honey and other bee products have been used for centuries by as folk remedies in China. Black scorpions sell for $12 a pound.

Dragon bones, actually ancient human and animal bones, play a significant role in Chinese culture. In the past they were prized for their medicinal qualities and used to treat malaria and other diseases. Now they are treasured not only by paleo-anthropologists but also by nationalists seeking to prove the biological continuity and singularity of the Chinese people. [Source: Sheila Melvin, New York Times, August 28, 2008]

In 2016, some African countries banned the sale of donkeys to China. CNN reported: Gelatin produced from donkey hide is a key ingredient of one of China's favorite traditional remedies, known as ejiao, which is used to treat a range of ailments from colds to insomnia. China is now increasingly looking to Africa to boost its stocks, and imports donkeys from countries across the continent. Niger recently became the latest African state to ban exports of donkeys, following a surge in sales to China. In August, Burkina Faso took the same step, after 45,000 donkeys were slaughtered in six months from a total population of 1.4 million. [Source: CNN, September 29, 2016]

Animals and Chinese Medicine: Tigers in Crisis ; Bear Bile Farms Pictures ; Animals Asia. Org Starfish, Scorpions, Lizards and Chinese

Aphrodisiacs and Chinese Medicine

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Ox penises

Traditional Chinese medicine shops sell deer antlers, seahorses, deer penises, sea cucumbers, dried lizards, monkey brains, sparrow tongues, deer tails, rabbit hair, tiger penises and the fungus the grows on bat moth larvae as aphrodisiacs. Chinese men also consume bull and deer penises soaked in herbal wine, bull's pizzles cooked with Chinese yam, fertilized duck eggs and snake bile to boost their sex life.

Indian tribes in the U.S. Pacific Northwest have made fortunes selling geoduck, giant burrowing clams, to markets in Hong Kong and southern China. The clams can weigh as much as 16 pounds and have a penis-like neck that can extend for three feet. Wealthy diners will pay up to $100 in Hong Kong or Shanghai for a dish made with geoduck meat.

Bird nest soup is supposed to prolong erections. Deer musk is rubbed on private parts too stimulate sex. The fact that dried seahorses are consumed for virility is ironic because seahorse are a species in which the males get pregnant.

Many aphrodisiacs either incorporate the penises of other animals or are shaped like penises. Dog penises from Thailand are sent to China and Taiwan, where they are consumed as energy boosters. Deer penis and testicles sold together on an ornate green box lined with red satin will sell for $63.

Labels on aphrodisiacs like Chinese Dragon Tonic, East Superman Pills, Strong Man Bao and Super Supa Softgels say thing like “Make yourself powerful during active sex,” “strengthen the functional activities of the loins and knees,” and “Battle impotence, lassitude, amnesia, and cold pain of the waist and knees,” An old advertisement for an aphrodisiac read: “Fight 100 battles in nine nights with no loss of verve and leave the ladies with cherished memories.” [Source: Daffyd Roderick, Time, March 19, 2001]

Deer Antlers and Chinese Medicine

Deer antlers are thought to "build up spiritual as well as physical powers." They are consumed in tonics and teas at the beginning of the winter to ward off flu and colds. The deer antlers are usually cut with blood imbedded in them. Sometimes the blood is squeezed out of the horn. One woman who was buying deer antlers at a pharmacy told the New York Times, "I need energy. I want to have a second baby, and I think this will help."

Deer antler are often sliced paper thin and boiled with ginseng and herbs. The slices closer to the root are considered more valuable and better for health than those near the tip. Slices from short antler are said tp be better than those form long antlers, A 29-day treatment costs around $1,100.

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deer juice
According to research by the New Zealand Game Industry — a source of deer antlers — antler velvet stimulates the immune system and white blood cell production. Their research showed that the upper sections of the antlers were more affective than those from the lower sections.

Some Korean farmer farmers raise deer for their antlers. The meat is sold to venison-loving Germany. Imported deer antlers are purchased at a price $5 for 75 grams and sold for $9 on the wholesale market and $20 on the retail market. Koreans also fancy elk antlers. Moose antlers are considered low quality.

In South Korea, tonics made with deer antlers and the parts of endangered animals are often consumed on special occasions, once or twice a year to boost energy. Deer sinew and tendons are regarded as cures for rheumatism. They comes in large and small portions.

Centipedes and Chinese Medicine

Four-inch-long poisonous black centipedes with yellow legs are prized ingredients in some oriental medicine concoctions in Korea and some places in China. These disgusting creatures can be quite aggressive. When attacked they rear up and strike like snakes and can run amazingly fast. My wife was bitten on the foot by one that crawled into her bed. Her foot was swollen for about a week.

Describing a man who sold centipede juice on the streets of Seoul, one American wrote in the Korean Times, the man "displays a whole towel that is positively crawling with centipedes the size of tongue depressors. With an enormous pair of tweezers, he picks off the centipedes and drops them in a boiling vat. From a tap at the bottom of the vat, a thick red liquid oozes into glass vials.”

A sign in front of herb shop in Kyongdong market in Seoul read: "Centipedes: we will roast and grind them for you." A centipede tonic in the shop was prepared according recipe described by Huh Joon, a Chosun dynasty physician who lived from 1546 to 1615.

Seahorses and Chinese Medicine

In Asia, particularly in China, South Korea and Japan, seahorses are coveted for its alleged medicinal and aphrodisiac properties. In China, seahorses are prescribed from ailments such as asthma, arteosclerosis, dizziness, joint pain, impotence and incontinence. In China medicine seahorses are usually ground and mixed with herbs and other ingredients a made into a tea. The fact that dried seahorses are consumed for virility is ironic because seahorse are a species in which the males get pregnant.

"North is ginseng and south is seahorse" is a Chinese adage from the Divine Peasant’s Herbal Compendium. But Chinese have not been the only ones who consumed seahorses as a medicine. The Roman historian Pliny the Elder reported that "ashes of seahorse...mixed with soda and pig's large" cured baldness.

Seahorse powder sells for about $6,000 per kilo in the early 2010s. In Hong Kong, "inferior" seahorses sold for about $220 a kilo in the 1990s. Higher quality ones went for around $1,000 a kilo. Seahorse are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Parts from Endangered Animals and Chinese Medicine

Parts from endangered animals include musk deer sent glands, bear bile, seal penises, bear's gall bladders, tiger bone, and rhinoceros horn, Endangered Asian barred owls, hawks and other owls are made into a soup which is supposed to improve eyesight Endangered Imperial eagles feathers are rubbed on skin.

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Selling animal parts
on the street in Chengdu

The skin of Malayan tapirs is consumed to remove boils and ward off infection. Macaque flesh is taken as a malaria treatment and a cure for lassitude. Leopard fat, elephant eyeballs, porcupine stomachs, wild boar teeth, monkey paws, civet glands, rabbit skulls, and otter penises are also consumed for medicinal purposes. In markets in Guangzhou you can see other rare cats, such as leopard cats, on sale as food. The bones from snow leopards and golden cats are used as a tiger bone substitute in some medicines.

If anything the market is expanding as wealthy consumers in China get more numerous and richer and continue to buy foods and traditional medicines made illegally from rare species, such as the pangolin and tiger. Parts from endangered animals are not just sold in Asia. A survey of pharmacies in Chinatowns in seven cities in Europe and North America found that many sold products made with parts of endangered animals. Bear bile, for example, is sold at pharmacies in Britain.

The illegal animal trade is worth $10 billion a year, possibly twice that. It is increasingly being controlled by organized crime as evidenced by the record seizures. China is the largest market

Fakes are often passed off as parts from endangered animals. For example, pig gallbladders are often sold as bear gallbladders and camel bones are passed off as tiger bones.

Synthetic versions of active chemicals in endangered animals are now marketed, but many consumers prefer the genuine articles. "It's like asking, 'What do you think about the difference between a natural diamond and an artificial diamond?’ — an Oriental medicine doctor told the New York Times. "Is it the same thing?

Endangered Species Used in Traditional Medicine

1) Rhinoceros: Rhino poaching reached epidemic levels in the 20th century, nearly driving all five species into extinction. But in the 1990s, China removed the animal from its list of ingredients approved for manufacturing medicines — rhino horn was supposed to relieve fevers and lower blood pressure, though any such effect was debunked by science — and rhino populations began to recover. That quickly changed a few years ago, though, after rumors began circulating in Vietnam that rhino horn had cured a VIP of terminal liver cancer. Poaching, particularly of black and white rhinos in South Africa, ramped up and the animals are threatened once again. [Source: Joseph Stromberg and Sarah Zielinski,, October 19, 2011]

2) Water Buffalo: Purebred wild water buffaloes may already have disappeared from the world, scientists acknowledge. Domestic varieties or hybrids may be all that remain in Southeast Asia, according to some estimates, or there could be a couple of hundred pure water buffaloes left or possibly thousands. Researchers do agree, however, that the species is endangered. But that hasn’t stopped people from hunting them in places like Cambodia (the water buffalo is considered an alternative to rhino horn in the treatment of conditions ranging from fever to convulsions). And the water buffalo has already been eliminated from swaths of Laos, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

3) Chinese Alligator: This small, freshwater crocodilian species now numbers fewer than 200 in the wild, mostly restricted to a small reserve in the Anhui province of China, along the lower Yangtze River. Habitat destruction, particularly dam building, has devastated the alligator population, but hunting has also taken a toll. Alligator meat is promoted as a way to cure the common cold and to prevent cancer, and alligator organs are also said to have medicinal properties. Captive breeding, in an effort to restore the species, has proved successful, and there are now thousands of captive animals and new efforts to reintroduce them into the wild.

4) Asian Elephant: Asian elephants were once thought to be relatively immune to poaching — unlike their African relatives, only some males, instead of all adults, have ivory tusks — but that is not true. The animals are killed for their meat, hide, tusks and other body parts. In Myanmar, for example, small pieces of elephant foot are turned into a paste to treat hernias. A bigger concern, though, is loss of the Asian elephant’s natural habitat and increasing conflict between the animals and the growing human population.

5) Sun Bear: The sun bear is just one of several bear species killed for its gallbladder, which is used for treating everything from burns to asthma to cancer. Their population has declined by more than 30 percent in the past three decades due to hunting and loss of their forest habitat. The killing of sun bears is illegal throughout their home range in Southeast Asia, but these laws are rarely enforced. In addition, commercial farms that raise bears to milk their gallbladders for bile restock by capturing wild bears.

6) Grevy’s Zebra; The Grevy’s zebra once roamed across East Africa, but its population dropped from 25,000 in the 1970s to about 2,500 today. Humans killed the animals for their skins and to eliminate competition for water between the zebras and livestock. The zebras can now be found only in northern Kenya and a few parts of Ethiopia. The Kenyan government developed a plan in 2008 to conserve the remaining population. Included in the effort was the recognition of the need to work with traditional healers who use the zebra’s meat and fat to treat diseases such as tuberculosis.

7) Tiger: While tigers originally lived across Asia, from Turkey to the eastern coast of Russia, their range has now dwindled to roughly a dozen countries in East and South Asia, and as few as 3,200 tigers may be left in the wild. Their decline is the result of the use of tiger skins, bones, teeth and claws in traditional medicine; they are believed to cure toothaches and protect against malicious curses, among other maladies. Criminal poaching syndicates can now get as much as $50,000 for the parts from a single tiger, and although international law bans the commercial trade of tigers, several countries permit the farming of tigers, further driving black-market demand.

8) Banteng: The population of wild banteng, a species of cattle native to southeast Asia, is now estimated to be somewhere between 2,000 and 5,000, a decrease of more than 90 percent since the 1960s. While land development and agriculture pose grave problems for the endangered species, poaching is a continued and direct threat, driven by the market for their horns, coveted as hunting trophies and use in traditional remedies. In 2003, banteng became the first endangered species to be successfully cloned, and researchers hope to use this technology for conservation purposes in the future.

9) Hawksbill Sea Turtle: Although Hawksbill sea turtles can be found in environments ranging from the Caribbean Sea to the waters surrounding Indonesia, their numbers have dwindled to the point that they are now listed as critically endangered. Poachers hunt hawksbills for a number of reasons, including for their shells, which have been distributed worldwide as travel souvenirs and incorporated into jewelry and other decorative items and for their oil, whose use in traditional medicine has increased in recent years. Bans on trading turtle products and various sting operations have achieved limited success in stopping the species’ decline.

10) Musk Deer: Seven species of musk deer are found in Asia, and all are on the decline. Thousands of male musk deer have been killed for their musk pods, a gland that produces the musk that gives the animals their name and has been used in perfumes. The musk, a brown, waxy substance, can be extracted from live animals, but “musk gatherers,” who can get around $200 to $250 per gland from foreign traders, find it easier to kill the deer. Though perfume makers have found synthetic alternatives to musk, the hunting hasn’t stopped. Musk deer meat is considered a local delicacy, and musk is still used in traditional medicines for treating cardiac, circulatory and respiratory problems.

Laws that Protect Endangered Animals

In 1993, CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) warned China and Taiwan, the two countries where the trade in tiger and rhino parts is most prevalent, to take steps to shut down the trade or face trade sanctions. In response, Chinese authorities said they would assign 40,000 people to enforce laws protecting endangered animals. Conservationist say that Taiwan and China would do just enough to stave off sanctions and then allow the market to resume business.

The CITES treaty has been signed by 130 nations. It protects 25,000 species and enforces bans on a number of items including tiger bones, rhinoceros horns, musk glands and bear gall bladders.

Korea had hoped for exemption on seven species — musks, bears, tigers, pangolins, turtles, mink whales and Bryde's whales.

The politics of the sanctions on endangered animals is tricky. Why, for example, are sanctions imposed for the mistreatment of tigers and not on the torture and imprisonment of Tibetans. There is also the issue of free trade. "Once you impose sanctions," a State department official asked, "then what?"

The U.S. has used a section of the U.S. Fisheries Protective Act known as the Pelly amendment to impose sanctions on nations whose acts hurts endangered species. The amendment was intended to curb the use of drift nets by Korea and Japan.

Russia Seizes Animal Parts Bound for China

Andrew E. Kramer wrote in the New York Times, “The 26 elk lips were just the tip of the pile. The items the Russian customs agents reported seizing Tuesday were exotic even by the standards of Russia’s border with China, where wildlife smuggling is rampant: 1,041 bear paws, lynx fur, unspecified claw parts and five tusks from the extinct woolly mammoth. Officials said they discovered the cargo after a dog alerted them to the contents in the bed of a Chinese driver’s seemingly empty truck. On closer examination, officials found a secret compartment with the cache of contraband.” [Source: Andrew E. Kramer, New York Times, June 14, 2011]

“Smuggling is generally blossoming in Russia’s Far East. The long border with China, closed for decades, is now open for travel and trade. “China is a vacuum cleaner for Siberian wildlife,” said Aleksei L. Vaisman, a senior coordinator for Traffic Europe-Russia, which is sponsored by the conservation group WWF, which monitors trade in wild animals. The largest cache of bear paws he knew of previously was 787 paws (one paw shy of 197 full sets of four). Bear paws are a ritual dish for Chinese, elk lips a delicacy. Also smuggled daily, for food or medicine, are bear gallbladders, frogs, deer antlers and the genitals of spotted deer. The bones of highly endangered Amur tigers are sought for their aphrodisiac qualities.

“The illegal cargo weighing almost 1.4 tons was detained by border guards and customs officials, a statement explained. The items were individually wrapped, the statement said, though it did not say if the compartment was refrigerated. The elk lips alone weighed 143 pounds. As Russian border agents using dogs have become more adept at catching small-time traffickers, smugglers have been compelled to risk large shipments, he said. The large number reported Tuesday (from about 260 bears) were most likely accumulated by brokers who bought them from hunters over the winter, he said. A set of four brings the hunters about $50.”

“The mammoth ivory poses an unusual set of legal and ethical issues. The tusks are more abundant than many people in the West realize. Encased in an upper layer of Siberia’s permafrost are the remains of an estimated 150 million mammoths that lived from 3,600 to 400,000 years ago. The parts surface in the spring thaw across vast stretches of Russia’s far north and are routinely collected. Most are exported — legally — to China, South Korea and Japan to be carved into personal stamps used in place of signatures on documents.”

“Russia, though, requires an export license. This is intended to ensure that traders send tusks with possible scientific value — like prehistoric slaughter marks or signs of ancient disease — to researchers. Generally, conservationists concerned about the illegal ivory trade from Africa into Asia encourage buyers to turn to the legal trade from Siberia of ivory from mammoths.Still, it was unclear how the tusks were hidden in the truck intercepted at a border crossing in the town of Blagoveshchensk or how the smuggler had obtained them. The tusks are often cut up and sold by the kilogram.”

Image Sources: Weird Meat com; BBC and AFP; Wikipedia; AAPA; WWF; Save the Tiger; Wild Aid; Snowland Great Rivers Association; Wild Alliance.

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated July 2022

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