Every doctor of veterinary medicine should read the January 2010 issue of National Geographic. The lengthy and well-documented article "Asia's Wildlife Trade" tells a story you must learn about.
It describes the insatiable demand in Asia for exotic pets, exotic culinary dishes, products of animal origin such as leather and ivory, and medicines—most of which are traditional and have no pharmacological value.
Huge populations in many Asian countries, improved standards of living, and modern technologies further fuel a multibillion dollar business in wildlife and wildlife body parts. This business—much of it illegal—is leading to the extinction of many species.
During the latter years of the 20th century, archaic healing systems—some from primitive cultures and some from ancient civilizations—became popular. This persists today. There is a revival, for example, in astrology, and a huge market exists for herbal and other so-called natural remedies that are largely unproven scientifically.
Some of these methods, of course, are valid. When acupuncture suddenly became popular after President Richard Nixon's visit to China, I referred a few cases. Observing results in some patients wherein conventional treatments had been fruitless, I took a short course in acupuncture, introduced it into my own practice, and had one of our technicians take an in-depth course.
Many bogus remedies are cited in this article. For example, tiger bone wine is contributing to the extinction of tigers and is no more efficacious in treating disease than is chicken bone wine or any other kind of bone wine.
The demand—largely in Asia—for animal body parts such as rhinoceros horns, tiger penis, and snow leopard testes as aphrodisiacs is severely threatening those species. I guess people who seek these animal parts have never heard of Viagra.
Bear bile has no more therapeutic value than the bile of any other mammal, but there's a huge market for it in Asia.
The article also cites the growing market for shark fin soup, carved ivory, and enormously expensive pet birds, mammals, and reptiles—nearly extinct species.
Organized crime rings deal in such products. These rings are enormously affluent, penalties are inadequate, and there just isn't enough money to finance the enforcement of laws protecting wildlife.
I see no hope for many exotic species other than captive breeding farms. I don't think we can educate enough people in time to reduce the demand for such products so as to avert the extinction of many species. The demise of animals that are the result of eons of evolutionary adaptation to their native environment is inevitable. What a tragedy!
If the preservation of so many creatures is dependent upon captive breeding programs, the role of our profession will be crucial.
What possible justification can there be to destroy any species because a body part tastes good, because serving it is a hallmark of prestige, because its skin makes attractive leather coats, or because its feathers are ornamental?
Worse, how can the extinction of a species possibly be justified because human stupidity and quirkiness have led to some of its body parts or bodily secretions being used for medicine? Tradition, superstition, and Stone Age mentalities prevail.
Isn't it enough that ever-expanding human populations and technologies have altered environments to the point that many animals and plants cannot cope? Must we accelerate the loss of species by vainly paying fortunes for pet Komodo dragons and Spix's macaws ($100,000) as pets, by wearing Siamese crocodile leather boots, by eating pangolins (the scaly anteater) or shark fin soup, by purchasing carved elephant tusks, or by trying to revive a fatigued libido by eating the gonads of the nearly extinct snow leopard?
Robert M. Miller, DVM, is an author and a cartoonist, speaker, and Veterinary Medicine Practitioner Advisory Board member from Thousand Oaks, Calif. His thoughts in "Mind Over Miller" are drawn from 32 years as a mixed-animal practitioner. Visit his Web site at robertmmiller.com.