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The healing power of tigers

*A story written by Bryan Hatton, Science Communicator and volunteer at the Merapoh Community Project*

Every day I’ve been in Malaysia I have taken an unnatural, synthetic chemical sold to me by Big Pharma to prevent malaria. But I have recently learnt that there is a natural, traditional remedy already available to me that can be found right here. Tiger eyeballs cure malaria! Actually, through some remarkable quirk of evolution a tiger is a walking pharmacy according to Chinese traditional medicine. I have to admit that in the hot afternoons after a class or a trek I feel a little lazy; I need to get some tiger brain for that. If I get a fever I need to find out if it’s caused by ghosts or not because tiger skin is only good for ghost-induced fevers. Tiger teeth are an effective treatment for rabies, tiger bone is good for arthritis and tiger blood will boost the willpower. The list goes on, it seems every part of a tiger is able to treat at least one malady.

A collection of traditional medicines.

A collection of traditional medicines.

The impressive healing qualities of the tiger’s body have been great for us but not so great for the tigers. There are now only 3000 – 4000 wild tigers left in the world, down from 100,000 at the start of the 20th Century. Poaching for traditional medicine is a major contributor to this loss, estimated to be a bigger contributor to tiger decline than habitat loss. The early 90’s were a particularly bad time for tigers. A combination of economic growth in China and a renewed interest in traditional healing resulted in a lot of people prepared to pay a lot of money for tiger-based medicines. During this time-period thousands of tigers were harvested of their medicinal body parts. These trends are continuing with more and more people across the world willing and able to buy expensive tiger parts.

Of course tigers aren’t the only species used in traditional medicine. Rhino, pangolin, sea horses, Chinese alligators, sun bears, musk deer, banteng and water buffalo can all be ground in to a powder to make traditional and natural remedies. These traditional remedies are expensive though as all of these animals are endangered and the more endangered they get the more the price goes up.

It’s almost unbelievable how powerful the healing abilities of these endangered animals are. Almost. So allow me to explain how it works. One of the basic principles of traditional Chinese medicine is that energy (qi or ki) flows around the body in channels called meridians. There are different types of qi which move in different ways. Health problems are caused by disharmonious movements of qi. Traditional Chinese herbal medicine is one way you can re-harmonise your qi flows. Herbal medicine is a bit of a misnomer as this field of medicine also includes animal parts and minerals. There are a few different principles behind it, one is the idea of “warm” and “cold” conditions. For example the thigh bone of a tiger (os tigris to give it its clinical name) is “warming” so you would use it to treat “cold” conditions like rheumatism. There’s also the five elements concept which postulates that your spleen is an earthy Zang organ while your gallbladder is a woody fu organ. Sometimes it’s just obvious; tigers are a hard working animal so consuming their brain would definitely cure laziness. We know this all works because it’s really old and somebody probably said once that it worked for them.

Curing laziness is a pretty poor reason to kill a tiger. But what about malaria or rabies? Rabies is a pretty serious disease and a very unpleasant way to die. Let’s imagine you were bitten by a rabid animal. The virus is travelling up your peripheral nervous system towards your brain. When it gets there your brain is going to become inflamed giving you a variety of terrifying symptoms leading to a painful death. If someone was to offer you a little tea or a pill made from tiger tooth, would you be tempted? Would you be prepared to be part of the reason for there being one less tiger in the world to save yourself from a horrible death? The rate of tiger poaching shows that there are many people who would say yes to that question. But not me. Not because I value my life less than a single tiger’s but because it doesn’t work! Really, it does not work. Tiger teeth will not cure rabies, their bile will not help your convulsing child and their whiskers will not alleviate tooth ache.

OK, perhaps I am making a bold statement that I have little evidence for. Admittedly, I couldn’t find any clinical research on the healing powers of tiger bits. But I think I can still be pretty confident in my claim because the basis behind traditional Chinese medicine is very clearly false and because of the lack of evidence for its effectiveness in general.

There has been some research done on rhino horn. Researchers found that rhino horn does not help with a fever (its main use in traditional Asian medicine) nor is it analgesic, anti-inflammatory or bactericidal. Despite the claims of traditional medicine rhino horn just ain’t medicine and I think I can confidently say that no part of a tiger can provide the most effective treatment for any condition. Traditional Chinese medicine is based on an incorrect pre-scientific view of how the body works, its view on how organs work is incorrect, there is no empirical evidence that qi exists and its conception of disease pre-dates the discovery of microbes. This is why research on traditional Chinese medicine has produced very few effective treatments.  Clinical research has not shown Reiki (a qi-based healing technique) to be effective for any illness beyond the effects of placebo and relaxation. Acupuncture is another ancient qi-based healing technique. The jury is still  out on whether or not it can cause short-term pain relief but it does not treat underlying conditions or bring about long-term health improvements. Chinese herbal medicine uses over 10,000 different animals, vegetables and minerals but has produced very few validated treatments. The evidence shows that, on the whole, Chinese herbal medicine has little to no therapeutic effect.

Despite the lack of evidence for the effectiveness of these treatments and their pseudoscientific supposed methods of operation people keep killing endangered animals to acquire them. Organised criminal gangs control a multi-billion dollar industry in the killing, transport and sale of endangered species because people believe consuming them will affect the flow of magical energy around their body.

Ecoteer staff and volunteers trekking in the forest. Having a presence like this in the forest can help deter poachers.

Ecoteer staff and volunteers trekking in the forest. Having a presence like this in the forest can help deter poachers.

With many species critically endangered and declining rapidly we must use every tool we’ve got to combat poaching. Ecotourism companies, like Fuze-Ecoteer, do excellent work providing locals with alternative sources of income and demonstrate to potential poachers that natural environments and their wildlife are valuable economic resources worth preserving. South Africa has special-forces style rapid response units in helicopters ready to engage poachers when gun fire is heard. Even this expensive and high tech approach to stopping poaching is only partially effective. The business must also be attacked at the other end: the market. The market for endangered animal parts will continue so long as there are people who value their health over the preservation of biodiversity and so long as there are people who would rather use traditional treatments that are unproven or proven not to work over rigorously researched evidence-based medicine.

Unfortunately, there is a pervasive and dangerous attitude towards medicine that is promoting this market. It is cool to avoid the artificial chemicals of the pharmaceutical industry and replace them with natural, traditional, energy-based, homeopathic, herbal, kale-based, elf-magic remedies. Ancient remedies are revered despite being developed before we knew how the body worked or what a bacteria is. These attitudes are so popular that the alternative/complementary/traditional health has developed into a global industry worth over 30 billion USD that relies on people ignoring some pretty basic science. This disregard for scientific evidence and the body of knowledge it has produced is often harmless but it is also responsible for poaching of endangered species for useless medicines as well as the anti-vaccine movement and climate change denial.

Conservation through education is a powerful idea. This education should challenge the irrational pseudoscience that creates a market for poached animal parts.  We  must educate people in the scientific realities of how the body works and in evidence-based critical thinking. We must engage people with science. The better people understand science, the safer endangered species will be.

I think I will stick with my synthetic chemicals that have been demonstrated through carefully designed experiments to be effective treatments and prophylactics. While the medical profession and the pharmaceutical companies may not be perfect, I can be confident that my medicine works and isn’t made of endangered species.