The Traditional Asian Medicine Trade is Taking a Heavy Toll on Bolivian Jaguars

Jaguars at Play by A. Davey. CC BY 2.0
Jaguars at Play by A. Davey. CC BY 2.0

Yesterday I came across this disturbing article on the IUCN Cat Specialist Group’s Facebook page. It claims that increasing Chinese involvement in Latin American countries, specifically Bolivia, has led to an alarming rise in jaguar poaching. The cats are being killed for the Traditional Asian Medicine (TAM) trade: the same market that is largely responsible for tigers’ precipitous decline.

As of May 2015, six out of seven proven cases of illegal hunting in Bolivia directly involved Chinese citizens. One individual was arrested before shipping 105 jaguar teeth to China. That is equivalent to 26 illegally killed jaguars.

Chinese beliefs hold that jaguar body parts have special properties. They are said to cure arthritis and increase men’s sexual potency (Metalli, 2015). It is also believed that one can take on an animal’s energy by consuming substances made from its tissues (J. Gross, personal observation).

The jaguar plays a central role in the belief systems of indigenous Bolivians, and is an iconic animal throughout Latin America. So not only is this recent surge in poaching pushing Bolivian jaguars towards endangered status (as of May 2015 they were considered vulnerable), but it shows a lack of respect for the region’s culture and laws.

As Chinese involvement in Latina America intensifies, the threat posed to jaguars by TAM is likely to increase (R. Mahler, personal communication, June 17, 2015). Therefore it needs to be addressed before it gets out of hand. To that end, I propose the following actions:

  1. Those with the ability to do so should make a concerted effort to determine the scope of the threat posed to jaguars by TAM. That will allow governments and conservationists to decide how best to handle it.
  2. All of us should do our part to spread awareness of this worrisome trend. While it seems to be common knowledge that the TAM trade is a threat to tigers, fewer people are aware of the danger it poses to jaguars.
  3. We should make it clear that poaching of jaguars, for use in TAM or any other reason, is socially unacceptable.
The people of China have more power than anyone to end the demand for jaguar parts. We must therefore avoid alienating them. DSC_8993 by Dominic Rivard. CC BY-ND 2.0
The Chinese people have more power than anyone to end the demand for jaguar and tiger parts. We must therefore avoid alienating them. DSC_8993 by Dominic Rivard. CC BY-ND 2.0

I DO NOT support these behaviors:

  1. Openly stereotyping or discriminating against citizens of China or other Asian countries. Not everyone who comes from these regions approves of the killing of threatened species. Moreover, such actions would likely be perceived as attacks on one’s social identity. This might lead TAM practitioners to become more fervent in their beliefs.

Click here to be taken to the original article (in Spanish)

36 Thoughts

  1. It is also a huge problem in Africa. We have even had tourists stealing our local penguins in handbags. The TAM trade is very difficult. Its tradition and so is a very fickle topic. We need to find a way to show people that ground up animal parts of any type cannot possibly help with back pains etc..
    Banning, Fines and imprisonment will only drive up the price ,demand and exclusivity of the product.
    When I have caught these people doing this type of thing, it is clear to see that they really believe they have done nothing wrong.
    It is easy to hate, anyone can do that.
    To try understand then educate in terms of the bigger picture…Well I think that is the challenge ahead. Dan

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve heard that too: Chinese involvement in Africa has proven to be highly damaging to lion numbers. I think that while we need to do everything we can to protect animals from the TAM trade, ultimately outsiders will not be able to stop it. The solution will have to come from inside China and other countries that practice TAM. They will have to step up and become global leaders in biodiversity conservation by showing the world that wildlife is worth more to them alive than dead.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Hopefully it won’t come to that…and I don’t think it will. But we need to make sure more people know about this and similar situations. Sharing stories like this might encourage the people of China to stop purchasing animal parts.


  2. It’s very easy to say we should try and stop poaching. But to actually give it a thought and suggest some practical measures is the requirement of the hour. Well done, Josh. Loved the post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your kind words :)

      I tried to focus my suggestions on what we, meaning people who do not practice TAM, can do. While they will help, ultimately the real solution has to come from the Chinese people and their neighbors. It’s time for them to step up and become global leaders in wildlife conservation.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for bringing this to our attention, Josh. It’s very unfortunate that traditional beliefs are causing this, because as we all know, not all traditional beliefs are bad – quite to the contrary – usually. But, I think here we have cases of the globalisation of supply and demand – even for items or substances which most probably traditional peoples would go without usually, purely because of the scarcity of such items, but now they can be found abroad and brought back.
    These are myth-driven substances which usually remain just that – something to be talked about, but other substances are found and used, and I think that when people become aware that they can actually get their hands on it, the demand increases.

    As someone mentioned above, this is also the case with poaching in Africa. For example Rhino poaching in South Africa increased for 8 years consecutively between 2008 & 2015, demand coming mostly from Vietnam (1175 rhinos were poached in 2015 – last year saw the first decline). I think education in the countries where the demand comes from is very important.

    There is some irony for me in the fact that the demand comes from traditional peoples, who generally tend to live closer to nature and the environment – one would imagine that they would understand the sacredness of protected species.

    I support all your suggestions + the educating of people in the countries where the demand arise, in the concepts of endangered and protected species – and of identifying and making available other organic or herbal substitutes to quell the demand.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You make some excellent points. Belief in Traditional Asian Medicines have been around for centuries, but globalization and China’s newfound prosperity has magnified the negative effects of those beliefs.

      You’re right about educating the people who practice TAM. But that education has to go beyond simply presenting information: it has to instill a deep love of wildlife and social norms that prohibit the use of parts from threatened animals. I’m not yet sure on how to do that, but hopefully someone with more experience than me will read this comment and come up with some ideas.

      As for the substitutes, the World Federation of Chinese Medicine Societies has said that there are plentiful alternatives to substances like tiger bones. But the demand remains. Perhaps education and the conservation ethic it creates will make more people willing to use those alternatives.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I particularly appreciate the fact that you took time out not just to oppose the poaching in writing (like many do) but also to propose plausible solutions. These are indeed very disturbing numbers.
    Forgive my ignorance on the matter, but is the Bolivian Government not doing anything to prevent/reduce the poaching of Jaguars for TAM purpose?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. To be entirely honest I’m not sure, this is the first time I’ve heard about TAM poaching in Bolivia. They’ve made seven arrests, so the government must be doing something. But I also heard from a scientist in Bolivia that no one has been punished yet.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. So do I. Unfortunately I’m not sure what the political or economic situation is like in Bolivia: they may lack the resources or will to really pursue this issue. But someone just landed on my site by searching for “jaguar poaching protest Bolivia Feb 2016,” so something might be going on.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Well, maybe. I talked with someone who lives in Bolivia and it sounds like the protest was poorly organized. But at least people are angry enough to speak out. Carefully thought-out plans could direct that energy into something meaningful; but we have to be careful to not turn this into an anti-China thing. That won’t help anyone.


    1. Thanks Nicola! It is sad to know that so many animals are being killed just for profit and unsubstantiated beliefs. Some species, like tigers, are even facing extinction because of these things :(

      I think we can overcome these challenges though, as insurmountable as they seem.

      Liked by 1 person

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