By Maneka Gandhi*, Minister for Women & Child Development, Govt of India.
All those people who rely on Ayurvedic medicine, thinking that it is a “jari-booti” based science, should know the truth.
According to the World Health Organisation, nearly 80% of the world’s population relies on traditional medicines, even though these medicines have no scientific evidence to prove their claim and no real medicinal value. In India, according to data gathered from research studies between 2002-2007, nearly 20% of the Ayurvedic medicine is based on animal-derived substance. Hooves, skin, bones, feather and tusks from 109 animals form important ingredients in the preparation of apparently curative and preventive medicine. 42 animal species are used for respiratory therapy, 32 species are used for rheumatic and other pains, 22 species are used for gastric problems. There are 270 “medicines” made from 44 mammals, 12 birds, 12 reptiles, 9 fish, 2 amphibians and 24 invertebrates. Of the 109 species 76 or 70% are endangered species according to our own laws and 36 animal species are listed as protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). We criticise Chinese traditional medicine for using animals – and smuggling a large number from India to fulfil these needs from bears and tigers to scorpions, but we do exactly the same thing in our so called Indian traditional medicines. It is not just Ayruveda, even the Unani system of medicine prescribes about 200 drugs of animal origin.
Protected animal species such as the peacock, the hard shelled turtle, spiny tailed lizard and collared dove are used as important medicine resources in India. Wild animals, including endangered or protected species such as the hornbill, pangolin, clouded leopard, tiger, bear and wolf are used in folk remedies in several parts of the country.
India is home to the world’s largest tiger population, making it a major source market for the illegal wild animal trade. Recently released data from the Wildlife Protection Society of India shows that India lost approximately 48 tigers to poachers in 2013, as compared to 32 in 2012. Tiger parts are used in traditional medicine not just in India, but are also smuggled to China for the same purpose.
Rhinoceros horns are used in medicines because of the belief that they treat fever, convulsions and delirium. Bear bile is said to treat a variety of illnesses and injuries, including liver ailments and headaches. Bears stop producing bile after a few years, and are then routinely killed for their meat, fur, paws and gall bladders to be sold for a large amount of money.
However, majestic endangered animals including tigers and rhinos are not the only ones at risk. Lesser known species are as much in danger of becoming extinct because of the massive use of their blood, fat, or organs in Ayurvedic medicine.
The growing demand for lizard skin, meat and bones has led to the near-disappearance of the monitor lizard in rural India. The tongue and liver meat of the lizard are believed to have aphrodisiacal properties. Pangolins have no documented medicinal value. Yet, they are killed for their scales that are made of keratin and are used in traditional medicine. Owl meat is said to “cure” seizures in children and rheumatism.
While there are laws that prevent the use of animal-derived substances in medicine, especially that of critically endangered species, the killing of these animals is widely prevalent throughout rural India, especially by the different tribes across the country.
Girls belonging to the Kanjar community in the vicinity of Rathambore National Park in Rajasthan are made to eat the flesh of the collared dove to attain puberty at an early age, putting the bird at a high risk of extinction. In fact the tribes around the area use 15 animals for cough, tuberculosis, earache, herpes etc. and regularly raid the forest and kill them. In Chhattisgarh, the oil from the red velvet mite is said to be useful for paralysis and to increase sexual desire.
The Chakhesang tribes of Nagaland use the flesh of the neo-tropical snake to cure arthritis, the blood of tortoise to cure erysipelas, a bacterial skin infection. The fat of a fox is used to cure rheumatism disorder, and a porcupine is fried to take care of sexual impotence. Raw blood of a peacock is said to treat paralysis, while the raw fat of an ostrich is melted over heat and used to relieve joint pains. The Ao tribe of Nagaland has killed so many animals for medicines that they are now extremely rare species.
The Kannikar tribes in Tamil Nadu and Kerala use the blood and flesh of black monkey, and the flesh of bat as a treatment for asthma. For the treatment of conjunctivitis, as well as for pimples, these tribes use the powdered tooth and tusk of an elephant mixed in milk, which is then put on the affected area. The Kurumba tribe in Karnataka uses the flesh and fat of a tiger, along with the fat of a python, to cure leprosy. Even for something as insignificant as hiccups, these tribes use powdered peacock feather, for which a peacock has to be killed.
In Kachchh, Gujarat, roasted flesh of a bank myna is used to treat whooping cough, while blood of the black ibis is used to cure paralysis. Raw flesh of the bat is used for healing external injuries, and legs of a peacock are boiled in oil to create a formulation that alleviates ear pain. In Gujarat, zootherapy is also used to “cure” domestic animals. A dried sea horse is powdered and mixed with fodder to cure stomach pains of horses, and the carapace of the Indian flap shell turtle’s ash is used for the healing of superficial blunt injuries of the cattle.
The tribals of Nadurbar in Maharashtra use wild animal parts. So do the Bhils, Garnits, Koknas and Pawaras. In Thirunelveli, Tamil Nadu 11 species of insects are ground together to prepare the base of medicines. A study, spread over 9 tribes in 4 districts of Tamil Nadu identified 6 mammals, 5 birds, two reptiles and 2 insects used for 17 kinds of ailments.
Ayurveda is not restricted to drinking honey as an expectorant or cattle urine as a therapeutic. It is a major destroyer of all species. Tibetan traditional medicine in India used to use hundreds of animals – in fact over 1500 types. In the last ten years it has become purely vegetarian without losing any of its efficacies.
We need to have Ayurvedic practitioners do the same. In fact, I am surprised that the wildlife departments have left them alone so far.
*About the author: Maneka Sanjay Gandhi is a Member of Parliament and leader of animal welfare movement in India. You may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, www.peopleforanimalsindia.org