Role of Toxic and Endangered Plants and Animals in Chinese Medicine

After walking by dozens of shops lining the streets of Hong Kong selling various dried herbs and animal mixtures for medicinal usage, I was curious about the role endangered plants and animals played in our modern society. My research revealed that for thousands of years, traditional Chinese medicine has been practiced in China and across the world but that this practice is alive and well today. These traditional medicines focus on restoring balance between the individual and the outside world. The life energy, called qi, is believed to have a yin/yang balance. This balance is regulated by entities, also responsible for regulating various functions in the body, rather than individual organs. Historically, different remedies come in the form of capsules, tinctures, teas, or powders and can be made up of up to 18 different ingredients. Usually, ingredients are herbs or animal parts, and sometimes include minerals. The mixtures are to be prescribed and distributed by licensed professionals called practitioners, although many medicines are purchased from unreliable and unknowledgeable sources.

The problem lies in the fact that the scientific validity of these remedies remains largely unknown and many contain allergens, toxic substances, or endangered animal parts.  Furthermore, the ingredients present in specific mixtures are often not labeled or are labeled incorrectly. The import and export of illegal or endangered plants and animals is not limited to Asia; it also occurs in the United States. According to the WWF, it is estimated that between 1985 and 1992, 30 percent of the 2 million medicinal products imported into the U.S. contained endangered or protected animal species. A wildlife-monitoring group called TRAFFIC conducted a covert study examining the availability of illegal animal products in both San Francisco and New York City. The results showed that the sale of products containing both tiger bone and rhino horn have been steadily declining, but have been consistently higher in NYC. Furthermore, the sale of leopard bone, as an alternative to tiger, has been increasing. In 2003, 63 percent of shops in NYC claimed to have this product for sale. Despite laws protecting many of these plants and animals, such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora or CITES, illegal poaching and trading continues, even in our own country.

Traditional Medicine Shop in Hong Kong



When stocks of Oriental ginseng began to decline, the focus was shifted to populations of wild American ginseng as an alternative. This valuable root grows throughout Canada and the United States but is becoming increasingly threatened due to overharvesting for medicinal purposes and damage to habitat from logging and land development.

Proposed Health Benefits: “Root of Life”, cure for many ailments

Environmental Hazard: Increased demand for wild American ginseng, unsustainable harvesting

Ginseng Root

Licorice Root

Licorice is a valuable food source for many animals and provides important ecological services such as nitrogen fixation and erosion control. Its importance extends to human health as well. Recently, German scientists discovered compounds called amorfrutins in licorice root that may help people with diabetes and with metabolic disorders because they have anti-inflammatory and blood-sugar reducing properties. However, its usage in traditional Chinese medicine has lead to overharvesting and habitat destruction.

Proposed Health Benefits: helps with afflictions of the airways and digestion

Environmental Hazard: Overharvesting and habitat destruction

Licorice Root


Deceivingly beautiful, this dangerous plant has been used for thousands of years and has likely caused just as many deaths as years of use. Despite huge numbers of people reported suffering from kidney failure and cancer of the urinary tract, the plant was not implicated in these cases until the 1950’s. These negative health effects have been directly linked to a toxic compound found in the plant called aristolochic acid. It wasn’t until 1994 that it was regulated in the U.S. and 2003 when it was banned in Taiwan. Although its adverse effects are well studied, it continues to cause illness and death in people who buy traditional Chinese medicines from unreputable or unlabeled sources.

Proposed Heath Benefits: Treats pain relief, respiratory disease, asthma, used as a diuretic

Environmental Hazards: Poisonous to humans, causes kidney failure, renal disease, and urinary tract cancer



Ephedra has been used in Chinese medicine for over 5,000 years as a remedy for a wide range of physical ailments and conditions. In 2004, the FDA banned its use in the U.S. after serious side-effects and even death was brought on by its usage. It was used mainly as a weight loss supplement because of its ability to increase metabolic rate. Although it is an effective stimulant and bronchial dilator, it can be very dangerous in excess and for people with certain preexisting conditions.

Proposed Health Benefits: Treats asthma, bronchitis, joint symptoms, swelling, and pain in the bones, common cold, sinusitis, hay fever, allergies, weight loss, athletic performance, mental and physical stimulation

Environmental Hazard: Has been show to cause nausea, headache, diarrhea, anxiety, kidney stones, tremors, irregular heart rhythms, high blood pressure, restlessness, and other symptoms in humans


Dried Ephedra



Unlike some other endangered animals, the trade of seahorses is steadily increasing. There are now 37 species threatened, 7 vulnerable, and 1 endangered. A staggering 20,000,000 animals are harvested each year and used in over 90 medicinal products. They are also the only animal not protected by international law regulating harvest and trade.

Body Part Used: Whole animal

Proposed Health Benefits: Treats kidney ailments, circulatory problems, impotence, urinary incontinence, and to induce labor

Environmental Hazard: Overharvesting, threatened species


Pile of dried seahorses


Body Part Used: Bones

Proposed Health Benefits: Treats arthritis and muscular atrophy, weak knees and legs, spasms, stiffness and pain in lower back

Environmental Hazard: Endangered species

Bowl of tiger bones and claws



The illegal trade and poaching of rhino horns can single handedly be blamed on the popularity of its usage in traditional Chinese medicine and to make other products like knives or beltbuckles. A study done by Chinese University in Hong Kong determined that the doses in which the horn is used has absolutely no medicinal value, you might as well be “chewing on your own fingernails”.

Body Part Used: Horn

Proposed Health Benefits: Treats fevers, convulsions, delirium, extreme heat, vomiting blood, nosebleed, and erythemia

Environmental Hazard: Critically Endangered and Endangered species


Rhino Horn

Asiatic Black Bear

This iconic Asian bear has undergone terrible and inhumane treatment all in the name of human health. Over 7,000 bears, although reduced in the last decade, are still farmed for the purposes of extracting valuable bile; Korea being the largest consumer. This extraction entails years of confinement in claustrophobic cages and excruciating procedures that puncture and drain the bile fluid each day, sometimes more than once per day. Despite the fact that over 50 herbal alternatives and a synthetic lab created bile are available and more effective has done little to abate the problem.

Body Part Used: Gall bladder, bile

Proposed Health Benefits: High fever, convulsions, spasms, hemorrhoids, swelling and pain, sprains, hangover, colds, cancer

Environmental Hazard: Inhumane treatment, certain species are endangered, effective alternatives available


Extracted bear bile

Musk Deer

This small, elusive creature is slowly disappearing from the forested mountainous areas all across Asia, mainly to satisfy European and Japanese markets. Although restricted under CITES, trade continues for the valuable musk, used for medicines and perfumes. In order to retrieve the musk, the gland must be removed from the males of the species, thus diminishing numbers and the ability for the population to reproduce.

Body Part Used: Musk gland; removed and dried to form a paste, the grains are mixed with alcohol.

Proposed Health Benefits: Convulsions, delirium, stupor, fainting, seizures, swelling and pain, and coronary artery disease

Environmental Hazard: Some species severely threatened, others near threatened


Musk Gland and powdered Musk

Saiga Antelope

The Saiga antelope, a bizarre looking rare creature, is highly valued for the medicinal properties of its horns. According to a recent Australian study looking the DNA profile of products confiscated at customs, the critically endangered animal continues to be exported despite protection under law.

Body Part Used: Horns

Proposed Health Benefits: Treats colds, high blood pressure, dizziness, vertigo, headache, irritability and more

Environmental Hazard: Critically endangered species (only 50,000 left)


Antelope horn

Although many of these toxic and endangered plants and animals have a long history being used in traditional Chinese medicines, it has only recently become a serious problem. Combined with urbanization, population growth, habitat destruction, and increased pressure on many plant and animal species from trade and poaching, the repercussions of using these products today are much higher than before. Unfortunately, the availability of alternatives exist for each and every plant and animal species mentioned, but their popularity has not spread. Stricter enforcement of trade laws protecting endangered species, as well as laws requiring labeling and testing of the safety and effectiveness of products is desperately needed. It is not simply a Chinese issue either; it is a global problem. Many different countries participate in import and export of these products and it will take a collaborative effort to save them from extinction. Read more at the links below:

Journal of Chinese Medicine:

Illegal ingredients:

Illegal trading in the U.S.:

Book to read: Mending the Web of Life: Chinese Medicine and Species Conservation
Elizabeth Call (2006)

2 thoughts on “Role of Toxic and Endangered Plants and Animals in Chinese Medicine

  1. I’ve long suspected, through my own observations, that the Chinese will eat ANY critter or plant on this Earth. A good thing for sure, but not without it’s drawbacks. YIN/YANG indeed.

  2. I had no idea that these particular plants and animals were being used for Chinese medicinal purposes. Very interesting article, and I enjoyed reading it.

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