Can we tame wild medicine?

FOLLOWING the second Opium War, which ended in 1860, Britain and other colonial powers demanded that China legalise the opium trade. The Chinese refused. In retaliation British troops ransacked the Summer Palace in Beijing. Some of China’s greatest artistic treasures were destroyed.

Echoes of this historic clash reverberate in contemporary confrontations
between conservationists and the people who trade, prescribe and use traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Many of the latter regard foreign demands for regulation of TCM to protect endangered species as a form of cultural imperialism. “I agree that all herbalists have duties to protect the endangered animals,” says one Hong Kong TCM trader. “However, we are equally obliged to use these antidotes to cure the patients. In my opinion, human lives are much more important than those of the animals.” Faced with such views, conservationists feel discouraged. Meanwhile, a treasure trove of natural heritage is under threat.

Parry-Jones, R. & A.C.J. Vincent (1998). New Scientist. 3 January 1998: 26-29.