By Gail Mallimson January 7, 2016
" We have the ability to do the right thing; therefore, I believe we have the responsibility to leave our children a living planet as well."
Like many of us last summer, Lixin Huang was horrified when she saw the photographs of Cecil the Lion's decapitation at the hands of an American dentist in Africa. As a tiger conservationist in the United States and China, Huang had seen a lot of terrible wildlife abuse, but this time her dismay had a cross-cultural twist. "I was worried I would get an alarmed call from China demanding to know why American medical practitioners are now using lion body parts in their work!"
Huang, Executive Director of CIIS' American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine (ACTCM) and V.P. of China Projects, has been pressed to explain cultural perspectives and traditions to people on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. Since 1997, she's worked with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) on campaigns to educate people in China about ending the commercial trade and use of endangered-animal parts for medicine, a practice rejected by Chinese medicine practitioners years ago.
Originally, when WWF representatives requested help with their campaign, Huang was reluctant and didn't see a connection to her role as the director of a Chinese medicine college. However, as she learned of the destruction of these rare species and of the damage that was being done to their habitats, she shifted course and initiated a large public information campaign in San Francisco.
In 1998-the Year of the Tiger-she worked with 200 local schools, the San Francisco Zoo, and WWF to create a "save the tigers" day with a parade and a poster contest to spread the word to the Chinese-American community about the need to end the destruction of tigers. As a result, rare-animal-parts sales dropped dramatically in California.
In China, Huang helped organize a conference in Beijing that was instrumental in persuading Chinese officials to enact and support legal restrictions to curtail the trade of tiger parts in China. She continues to speak out against the use of tiger parts and to work with Chinese officials to curb the practice in China.
As recently as 100 years ago, as many as 100,000 wild tigers roamed the forests and grasslands of Asia. Measuring up to 10.5 feet long and weighing 650 pounds, tigers live at the top of the food chain in their ecosystems. In China, they're often depicted on tombs and graves, and are considered protectors of the dead and "First Masters of Heaven." Because they have been seen as symbols of valor, virility, and power, many Chinese people traditionally hunted the tigers for trophies and cut up their bodies, believing that a tiger's bones, claws, eyeballs, meat, and penis could heal the body and increase virility.
These beliefs date back more than 3,00o years, when most healers were village practitioners who passed their knowledge down through their children and grandchildren. Their use of tiger parts was a regional folk practice that predated the comprehensive institutionalized medicine that is taught at ACTCM and across China today.
Chinese Medicine Modernizes
A major change in Chinese medicine began in 1949 with the Communist revolution. In the 1950s and '60s, the government pushed to modernize China and promoted Traditional Chinese Medicine, creating several medical universities and updating the traditional ways into a unified modern medical profession.
Universities, including Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, and Chengdu, became centers of thought where students and faculty developed the modern Traditional Chinese Medicine system that is taught today. In China, Traditional Chinese Medicine is now practiced side by side with Western medicine and is part of a comprehensive health care system.
According to the World Federation of Chinese Medicine Society, there are 120,000 Chinese medicine practitioners worldwide. As of 1993, the use and trade of tiger parts was completely banned in China, and they have been removed from the official Chinese medicine pharmacopeia. The sale of animals from all endangered species, including tigers, rhinos, and elephants, is internationally banned by the 171-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), a cooperative organization between governments to protect rare species.
Often Huang's role has been to emphasize this to Western conservationists, explaining that the use of tigers for medicine (or anything else) is strictly an underground black market practice. Huang has had to remain vigilant in her work. The black market trade remains very lucrative, and it's estimated that there are only 3,000 tigers left in the wild today, all of which are considered endangered. In China, a network of "tiger farms" has sprouted up, housing thousands of tigers--more than can be found in the wild. In the U.S., private citizens are also permitted to own rare animals, and according to the WWF, it is easier in some states to buy a tiger than it is to adopt a dog.
WWF estimates that 5,000 tigers are living in captivity in the U.S. and has called for the termination of private ownership of large felines to protect the public and ensure that tigers aren't sold on the black market. Huang, WWF, and Traffic, another conservation group, continue to support the Chinese and American governments in maintaining the ban on tiger trade to its fullest extent and in providing oversight of these kept animals.
Saving More Than Tigers
To Huang, it all comes down to education. She's consistently fought to assure people that tiger and rare animal parts have no place in professional Chinese medicine and that there are superior ways of maintaining and restoring health. Her conservation work has become a strong passion as well as a professional pursuit. "When we save wild tigers, we save their environment too, ensuring the survival of many other species and their ecosystems. It's vital that we protect these natural areas before they're gone."
Huang, an executive committee member of the World Federation of Chinese Medicine Societies, in September addressed the group's conference in Barcelona, urging international attendees to remain vigilant about the protection of tigers. She's driven by the belief that humans can and should protect these wild animals and the wildernesses they are native to.
"We have the ability to do the right thing; therefore, I believe we have the responsibility to leave our children a living planet as well."
Gail Mallimson is a filmmaker, and media and communications consultant