There is a growing concern in the conservation community that a rise in traditional chinese medicine (TCM) consumption in Africa could have a significant impact on wildlife, including Critically Endangered rhino populations. Rhinos, pangolins, elephants and big cats are often killed for body parts used in TCM, and growing demand would increase already rising poaching incursions in places like South Africa.

A November 2021 report published by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) details the risks involved from the growing marketing and promotion of TCM in Africa as a result of closer economic cooperation between countries in Africa and China. 

EIA’s research concluded the following:

  • TCM is gaining ground in Africa, with an increasing number of African governments entering into official agreements with the Government of China to support TCM development.
  • TCM is being further endorsed under national laws in certain African countries, as seen in Namibia and South Africa.
  • TCM products containing animal parts are openly for sale in retail outlets in Africa.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has enabled the Chinese Government to strengthen its promotion of TCM in Africa.
  • There is an urgent need to address the risks posed by popularizing TCM in Africa, notably resulting in the expansion of TCM pharmaceutical companies targeting traditional African medicine and TCM consumers.

The World Health Organization estimates that as much as 80% of the African population relies on traditional medicine as the primary health care. Traditional medicine is an integral part of the cultural heritage, using herbal and animal derived remedies as part of local traditions. It did not come as a surprise that TCM would gain traction on the continent.

Increasing cooperation between China and African countries has generated a significant economic benefit to Africa’s growing economies. Chinese products are readily available in Africa and the government has encouraged the importation of TCM.

Though only a small portion of TCM utilizes animal parts, the use of threatened species has contributed significantly to current population losses for the white and black rhinos of Africa and is responsible for rhino extinctions in countries such as Vietnam and Malaysia. Rhinos are killed only for their horns.

Poaching is again on the rise, particularly in South Africa. An increase in demand in Africa’s population for TCM could lead to a crisis of epic proportions, leading to an increase of poaching of the continent’s wildlife as well as the degradation of habitats and the reduction of biodiversity necessary for both animal and human survival.

The global pandemic has exacerbated the demand for TCM as the need for healthcare rose significantly, and access to medical services often unavailable or nonexistent. This is a world issue, and all countries must work together to increase access to health care, prevent future pandemics, and protect wildlife and habitats from extinction, further impacting the world’s health.

To prevent a crisis, the International Rhino Foundation reinforces its call for existing wildlife legislation to be enforced and new laws to be enacted to ensure Africa’s unique flora and fauna are protected and TCM is properly regulated to prevent the use of threatened species.

EIA recommends the following actions:

  • Governments should revise their laws to explicitly prohibit any use of threatened species for medicinal purposes regardless of source captive or wild bred), if such prohibitions are not already in place. 
  • In the process of integrating or regulating TCM, governments should prohibit the use of any threatened species, including captive bred specimens as ingredients.
  • TCM, both as raw ingredients and as fully processed products, should be transparently regu;ated by the relevant drug safety authority.
  • Law enforcement authorities should ensure proper declaration of TCM products throughout the customs import and export process. They should also ensure that trade only occurs with the necessary permits in place and that any improper activity is investigated and subject to appropriate penalties.
  • Governments should collaborate with relevant stakeholders to implement targeted behavior change interventions to dissuade TCM practitioners and traders from using threatened species as ingredients and as a marketing tool to advertise their products.
  • TCM companies and others should adhere to strict environmental, social and governance principles and cease the use of threatened species.
  • Governments should increase transparency around bilateral agreements and regulatory processes, allowing independent monitoring and research into the existing footprint of TCM in Africa.

IRF supports these recommended actions and calls on governments to properly enforce laws and enact regulations to protect their threatened species, including rhinos. We will actively monitor and report on these activities as appropriate.