Q Herbs are one thing, but what about all the poor animals used in some types of alternative medicines?
A Depends why you're asking. If you're vegan, no animal ingredients are ever acceptable, and stuff like animal-based gel caps are a big no-no. Luckily, more and more alternative supplements are packed in veggie caps, but plenty still use old-fashioned gelatin obtained by boiling cow and pig bones, ligaments and skin. Make sure the label says "vcap" or "veggie cap. "
Lots of supplements are clearly animal-derived, like shark liver oil or bone meal (ground bone, sometimes found in supplements as a source of calcium, but mostly given to pets). Bee propolis is the antibacterial bee glue in honeycombs (and may be found in some alt cold formulas), but you may not realize royal jelly also comes from bees. It's actually a secretion from the throat glands of worker bees.
There are lots of other health remedies flying below the veggie radar. Vitamins A and D may come from fish liver oils and egg yolks. Ironically, B-12, the very vitamin many vegans pop because they're short on it, can come from animal sources, so make sure you ask. Twinlab B-12 vitamins use animal gel caps, according to PETA. Low in iron? Note to veg-heads: iron supplements can be made of bovine liver.
If you're not a vegetarian or vegan, this stuff may not bother you. Many of these products tend to use by-products of the meat industry (so the pro-meat people might say using them prevents wastage), but that biz comes with its own barnful of eco implications, including waterway pollution, hogging of land, grain and water sources, as well as antibiotic and hormone overuse.
Beyond farm abuses, many wild species are hunted for health remedies. And according to wildlife protection groups, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is one of the worst offenders. The World Wildlife Fund says the rising popularity of TCM around the world means the poaching of threatened and endangered animals has reached crisis proportions. Three-quarters of the 83 Asian turtle species used in turtle jelly are threatened, but in China it's entirely legal to catch them. Chinese medicine is also the number-one threat to Asia's tiger, rhino and bear population, even though these species are supposedly protected.
And poaching is so out-of-control in India that in 2005 not one Siberian tiger was left at the Sariska reserve, where at least two poaching networks were suspected of working. Even wild sea horses are in decline, in part because about 20 million a year are captured and killed to treat impotence, asthma and, of all things, lethargy. I mean, really, do you have to kill a sea horse just because you're feeling a little fatigued?
But hunters trading in animal parts for TCM are not confined to Asia. A lot of it happens right here in Canada. Wild black bears are killed for their gallbladders and bile, which are used to treat everything from hea rt disease to hemorrhoids.
Canada happens to be the largest black bear habitat in the world. Bear parts can be sold legally in the Northwest Territories, Quebec and Nova Scotia. Indeed, Nova Scotia says there's no evidence of poaching without permits for parts. The manager of wildlife resources there also stresses that black bears aren't endangered or threatened in Canada, as they are in parts of Asia. Nonetheless, in Quebec, Alberta, Ontario and the U.S., over 60 warrants were issued in 2002 targeting bear part poachers, and 56 people were charged.
Many Canadian TCM practitioners won't prescribe the stuff any more, but that doesn't mean you can't find it. In 2002, the World Society for the Protection of Animals Canada found four gallbladders for sale at three Toronto medicine shops. Tiger bones are even easier to hide, since they can be ground up and labelled as other bones.
The World Wildlife Fund is trying to steer practitioners and patients away from endangered species and has held forums in China to promote the use of substitutes. The Chinese government is also researching alternatives. You can check out a list of wild tiger alternatives on the WWF website, www.tcmwildlife.org.
Some biotechnology firms are suggesting that genetically engineered turtle shells, tiger bones and endangered plants could take the pressure off wild populations, but the idea doesn't sit well with environmentalists and isn't likely to stop people from hunting down the real thing. Wild bear bile is already considered more desirable than farmed bear bile or "artificial" bear bile made from cows. Hence all the poaching.
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