The traditional medicine cabinet

People have used animals and plants for medicinal purposes since time immemorial, and some of these ancient traditions – such as India’s Ayurvedic medicine, traditional Chinese medicine, and Greco-Arab Unani medicine, as well as various indigenous practices around the world – have stayed strong for millennia.

Traditional medicine is distinguished from Western allopathic medicine by its use of herbs and animal parts. Traditional medicine also often focuses on preventing illness, while allopathic medicine focuses more on treating symptoms. In Africa, 80 per cent of people still turn to such medicines for health care, while in China, 40 per cent of health care is traditional. Traditional medicine is also popular in Latin America, and even in nations that rely mostly on allopathic medicine, complementary therapies are hugely popular, contributing to the thousands of species of plants and animals and billions of dollars’ worth of trade.

While the longevity of traditional medicine speaks to its strength, the problem is that, with accelerating population growth, there simply isn’t enough to go around. We all recognize key species that are already close to extinction due to hunting for medicines, most famously rhinos, which are hunted for their horns, said to reduce fever, enhance virility and even cure cancer, and tigers, whose body parts are used to treat everything from epilepsy to meningitis to acne. But many lesser-known species of animals are also overharvested, as are many species of wild medicinal plants – including most of those used in Ayurvedic medicine.

One obvious solution would be to simply find non-endangered alternatives for treatment of the same symptoms, such as aspirin instead of rhino horn for fever reduction. Another solution might be to accelerate scientific research to understand the active medicinal properties of traditional medicines, so that we can retain health benefits while conserving species – and debunk those with no active effect.

One of the difficulties with traditional medicines is that their effects are often anecdotal, and much is still to be learned about what makes them effective. Some pharmaceutical companies are investing in this research, hoping to isolate active compounds that might prove useful and profitable. However, research requires lots of time and money, and this is not a foolproof approach, as a medicine that is taken in a real-world context might be treated differently from how it’s administered in a lab. And even if active medicines are discovered and synthesized, they still have to be affordable and embraced by consumers as an acceptable alternative. It’s a big task.

Meanwhile, traditional medicine has another value besides the strictly chemical one. Long-held traditions and structures of care centered on elders or experts who know about how local flora and fauna contribute to cultural and social cohesion. Respecting cultural differences and honouring traditional knowledge could go a long way towards convincing people that it’s important to conserve the biodiversity that provides our medicine cabinet. Traditional healers, often well-versed in the concept of balance in systems – and who are typically at the centre of their communities – are in an excellent position to lead the way in raising awareness and changing minds, serving both patients and the ecosystem.

Regardless, we need to conserve all we can. Even if a plant or animal is scientifically proven to be inactive for its traditional use, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hold the potential for a cure to a disease we haven’t even come across yet. It’s up to us to preserve Earth’s biodiversity for our own good health.

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