Two bears kept in barren cages at the  Onesti Zoo in Romania.

Wildlife in Traditional Medicine – Why Changing Consumer Behavior is Critical



While thousands of animals are still suffering needlessly for the sake of traditional medicine, our research shows that the majority of consumers are willing to change their habits and switch to plant-based alternatives. We’re helping accelerate this change with a new online tool.

Traditional medicine is global 

When we think of traditional medicine (TM), we often have China and other Asian countries in mind. However, TM products and practices are also used in Africa, Latin America, Middle East, Europe, and right here in the United States. In short, the whole world uses some form of TM.  

Based on our research, 23% of the general population in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, and Brazil have used TM products at some point in their lives. While the majority of TM products are plant-based, 35% of TM users we surveyed said they have used TM that contains animal parts1.  

It’s not just purchasing TM products containing wildlife derivates that supports an industry that causes suffering for wild animals. Tourists who visit Africa may also be contributing to the wildlife TM trade, as many of the animals used in these experiences will go on to be killed for their bones which are exported for TM. By enabling the monetization of young lions before they're sold for their bones, tourists are making this cruel supply chain even more profitable.

A consumer revolution  

In China, the proportion of TM ingredients derived from animals is very small, around 12%, while herbal medicine accounts for around 87% of all products. While this percentage seems minor, the impact on animals is massive. It involves millions of wild animals including bears, tigers, lions and more being farmed at an industrial scale or poached from the wild for their parts and derivatives. 

The animals caught up in this industry are suffering to an almost unimaginable degree. Big cats in farming facilities are torn away from their mothers soon after birth and forced to live in cramped, unhygienic cages. They are often inbred, starved and diseased, and live short lives of complete misery until they are killed for their bones. Bears too are forced to live out their lives in tiny cages, but theirs is a long life of suffering, as bear bile is slowly and painfully extracted from them over a lifetime. And that’s just part of the industry. 

Thankfully, due to higher awareness of animal welfare issues that surround wildlife farming, consumers in Vietnam and China are moving towards plant-based alternatives. Both countries are hotspots for wildlife use in TM. 

Based on our research, 68% of consumers of big cats products (e.g. tiger and lion bones) and 72% non-consumers in Vietnam are willing to buy plant-based substitutes if the price is cheaper2. In China, more than 50% are open to using plant-based substitutes3.  

Many consumers are aware of cruelty and conservation issues surrounding the bear bile trade. Based on our survey, there’s a willingness to shift to plant-based alternatives if consumers knew of them and were convinced that they are just as effective.  

Meanwhile, a joint team of researchers from the University of Oxford, in collaboration with World Animal Protection, has shown that the impacts of some traditional medicines on animals could be combatted by offering herbal substitutes to regular consumers. When offered herbal substitutes for animal-based medicines, regular consumers were the most enthusiastic group: 89% said they would buy them.  

Information is the key to change 

This data shows that people are willing to shift to plant-based alternatives if they have enough information, and the key to getting them this information is through their TM doctors. TM doctors have a huge influence on what consumers choose to buy, so we must increase the level of awareness among them and provide access to information on plant-based alternatives. Our team in China has already made great progress in convincing TM doctors to promote plant-based alternatives. Based on our research, 85.2% of TM practitioners say they will minimize or refrain from prescribing medicines with wild animal derivatives, while 54.3% of them will consider prescribing alternatives with similar or better efficacy. 

We are also at the forefront of changing consumer demand providing an online platform on plant-based alternatives to wildlife used in TM. This platform aims to help millions of consumers, and TM doctors avoid wild animal ingredients without having to abandon culturally-sensitive practices. Based on expert TM research, the platform enables consumers and practitioners to easily identify non-animal alternatives to common wildlife ingredients that are still used in TM today.   

Ending the global wildlife trade to protect our health 

As COVID-19 continues to cause damage across the globe, consumers are becoming more aware than ever of the dangers of exploiting wild animals, including for use in TM.  Shifting to plant-based alternatives is not only good for animals, but it is also good for human health and the planet.  

If you support this monumental global change for good, add your name to our petition to the G20 to end the cruel and dangerous global wildlife trade forever.

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1Wildlife not medicine audience research in 2019, an online survey with 3,029 respondents in 7 countries with 340 Chinese/Japanese Diaspora respondents

2Survey on Vietnamese Public Attitudes toward the Consumption of Big-cat Products in Vietnam​ in 2018 (705 respondents) 

3Study of the Chinese Public's Attitude to the Consumption of Big Cat Products in​ 2019 (1231 respondents)

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