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In Chinese medicine, tiger goes to dogs

BEIJING: The growing use of substitutes for prized remedies in Chinese medicine such as tiger bones and rhinoceros horns could help save the endangered animals from extinction, conservationists and academics have said.

``Some of the substitutes have been proven effective in laboratory tests by TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) specialists,'' said Judy Mills, director of the Trade Records Analysis of Flora and Fauna in Commerce in East Asia.

``And there is the sailong gu (bone of the sailong rodent) which can replace tiger bones,'' she said Friday. Mills said dog bones and some herbs were also showing promise as an alternative to tiger bones, often ground to powder and mixed with Chinese herbs to make medicinal plasters.

Some plaster makers are also switching from tiger to ginger, which is known to be a ``warm herb'' and has proven its efficacy for rheumatism, academics said.

There are now a mere 7,000 tigers in the world. Half a century ago there were 150,000 and those that remain are threatened by poachers keen to make a profit from tiger parts.

Mills said though the World Wide Fund for Nature classifies as endangered only four animals and one plant from among the more than 1,000 plant species used in traditional Chinese medicine, there should be no slackening in conservation work.

``It's a small percentage of the Chinese pharmacopoeia that is in trouble in the wild, but now is the time to make sure that the other animal species and plants do not become threatened or endangered because of medicinal use,'' she said.

The WWF, which is holding a three-day symposium in Beijing on the use of wildlife in TCM, says the global TCM industry is likely to soar to $12 billion in the decade starting 2000, compared to the current decade's $1 billion.

One major hurdle in persuading people to accept substitutes in Chinese medicine is the glamorous image of animals like tigers and rhinos, practitioners said. ``Other than its clinical effect, another reason for using tiger bones is that the animal is often portrayed by the Chinese as ferocious and heroic,'' Huang Lixin, president of the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

``On the other hand, sailong is a type of mouse that drug makers wouldn't draw on their labels,'' she said. Conservationists say there is added concern about protecting tigers and rhinos as they are at the top of the CITES (Convention on International Trade and Endangered Species) list of endangered species, followed by deer and bears.

``They keep bears in the farm and extract the bile while they're alive. Of course, many people say that's cruel, but at least they don't have to kill that animal like they do to tigers,'' said James Harkness, director of species campaigns at WWF International. (Reuters)