/ 5 December 2021

Lethal remedy: Concern over African trade in traditional Chinese medicine that contains threatened species

Drcongo Politics Poaching Environment
Endangered: The Democratic Republic of the Congo burnt pangolin scales and ivory in 2018 in Kinshasa in a bid to stop the illegal trade. (John Wessels/AFP)

Researchers are ringing alarm bells over the growing demand for traditional Chinese medicine in Africa.  

The London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) has called on African governments to increase awareness and dissuade local producers and retailers of trade specifically in traditional Chinese medicine that contains wildlife species that are already under threat. 

The EIA investigates and campaigns against environmental crime and abuses. 

“We understand that traditional medicine is integral to many cultures and plays an important role in healthcare in Africa and beyond,” said Ceres Kam, an EIA wildlife campaigner.

 “However, while the majority of TCM [traditional Chinese medicine] treatments are plant-based, some pharmaceutical companies continue to source ingredients from threatened animals, aggravating the pressure on the survival of these species.”

The body said the Chinese government had ramped up its promotion of traditional Chinese medicine in Africa as a key component of its controversial Belt and Road Initiative.

“Major companies and countless clinics have already been established across the continent and certain retailers plan to establish full supply chains in place, from sourcing to sales,” the EIA said in a statement. 

It said this was a prescription for disaster for some endangered animal species, such as leopards, pangolins and rhinos.

“Our very real concern is that such a huge expansion of TCM in Africa, as is happening under China’s Belt and Road Initiative, will have the knock-on effect of drastically increasing demand for treatments containing wildlife and, in turn, cause more species to become threatened or extinct,” Kam said. 

The findings are in a new report, Lethal Remedy: How the Promotion of Some Traditional Chinese Medicine in Africa Poses a Major Threat to Endangered Wildlife, which calls for stricter oversight in the growing market. 

Kam added: “Ultimately, the unfettered growth of TCM poses a serious threat to the biodiversity found in many African countries, all in the name of short-term profit.

 “Any utilisation of threatened species in TCM could potentially stimulate further demand, incentivise wildlife crime and ultimately lead to overexploitation.”

In 2017, Global Risk Insights said Africa had become the largest medicine export market for China in 2012.

It said there was a growing demand for the gelatin extracted from donkey hooves and skin, which is an important ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine, as well as crocodile farms being set up in countries such as South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Morocco and Kenya where crocodile meat and skin has become a lucrative business in supplying the demand for traditional Chinese medicine ingredients. 

Despite a ban on trade bodies such as Cites (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), South Africa is a key destination for pangolin poaching. 

In 2016, the environmental investigative organisation Oxpeckers found that it was not solely the African traditional practice that was decimating the species but, according to conservationist Rob Bruyns, “rather a gradual commodification of the species for profit in the transnational endangered wildlife trade”.

Tunicia Phillips is an Adamela Trust climate and economic justice reporting fellow, funded by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa.