November 17, 2007
Asian Industrialization Threatens Many Species

Saiga antelopes are getting wiped out as a side effect of an attempt to save rhinos in Africa from use in Chinese folk medicine treatments.

A decade ago, the saiga antelope seemed so secure that conservationists fighting to save the rhino from poaching suggested using saiga horn in traditional Chinese medicines as a substitute for rhino horn.


In 1993, over a million saiga antelopes roamed the steppes of Russia and Kazakhstan. Today, fewer than 30,000 remain, most of them females. So many males have been shot for their horns, which are exported to China to be used in traditional fever cures, that the antelope may not be able to recover unaided.

By way of Alex Tabarrok.

The demand for folk medicine in China is wiping out lots of species. The World Conservation Union says most of the bear species are threatened with extinction and Chinese medicine is one of the causes.

Six of the world's eight species of bear are threatened with extinction, according to a report from the World Conservation Union (IUCN).

The smallest species of bear, the sun bear, has been included on the list for the first time, while the giant panda remains endangered, despite comprehensive conservation efforts in China.

China is going to keep industrializing and Chinese buying power for parts of endangered species is going to keep rising. At the same time, deforestation driven by Asian industrialization, population growth, and other factors will continue.

The main threat to bears across south-east Asia comes from poaching. Although illegal, poachers are prepared the risk the small chance of being caught against the lucrative gains they can make from sales on the black market.

Prized bear body parts include the gall bladder, which is used in traditional Chinese medicine, and their paw, which is considered to be a delicacy.

Another threat to bear populations comes from living in close proximity to human settlements. Bears are often killed when they prey on livestock or raid crops, or killed when the roam too close to a village because they are seen as a threat to human safety.

The Chinese raise incarcerated bears to extract bile for medicine. That probably saves some of the wild bears from death. But animal rights campaigners oppose using captive bears for bile extraction.

Even with a new state-approved "free drip" method of extracting bile, China's incarcerated bears lead miserable, pain-wracked lives, said campaigner Jill Robinson, who says she won't rest until the 7,000 bears kept on China's farms are free.

Tigers are in rapid decline too.

In the past 100 years, tiger populations around the world have declined by 95 percent. In India, home to at least half of the world’s tigers, only an estimated 1,500 remain, a decline of more than 50 percent since 2001, according to the government-run National Tiger Conservation Authority. In the past six years, it is believed, tigers have been killed at a rate of nearly one a day.

Over the next 20 years, the tiger population could “disappear in many places, or shrink to the point of ecological extinction,” according to a 2006 report by the World Wildlife Fund and the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington.

Several factors have contributed to the decline in India, including a growing human population. There is also a demand for tiger parts from places such as China, where tiger skins priced at $12,000 and more are used for luxury clothes and wall hangings, and where equally pricey tiger bones are used in traditional medicines. Compounding the problem, wildlife activists say, is a pro-development Indian government more concerned with the economy than the environment.

Other types of species are also threatened.

More than 30 per cent of the world's amphibians, 23 per cent of mammals and 12per cent of birds are now threatened with extinction. More than 75 per cent of fish stocks are fully or overly exploited. Six in 10 of the world's leading rivers have been either dammed or diverted. One in 10 of these rivers no longer reaches the sea for part of the year. More than two million people die prematurely every year from indoor and outdoor pollution. Less than 1 per cent of the world's marine ecosystems are protected.

Humans are like "a plague of ravenous insects".

Humans affect, and are affected by, the environment to an enormous degree. The GEO-4 report includes a number of disquieting statistics on humanity. The global population has grown by 1.7 billion in the 20 years since 1987, to a grand total of 6.7 billion. And these 6.7 billion humans consume like a plague of ravenous insects. One small example noted in the report: every year, 1.1million to 3.4million tonnes of undressed wild animal meat, or bushmeat, is eaten by people living in the Congo basin.

Except the insects serve as food for birds and other animals. Humans are on the top of food chains.

Humanity's footprint on ecosystems keeps getting larger. This can't continue indefinitely. All exponential trends must stop eventually. I would like this one to stop short of ecological disaster.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2007 November 17 10:51 PM  Environment Species Loss

aa2 said at November 17, 2007 11:05 PM:

Yet the same authorities trying to lower our birthrates in the western world.. send vast amounts of food, medicine and money to save ever last third world child, and promote rapid population growth in the third world.

I've been saying for quite a few years that it is morally wrong to provide food and money, without first getting the women's tubes tied. If they are able to have 8 children each, obviously they don't need our help for food. Sadly most African and Indian women would be happy to have their tubes tied for free, especially after having a couple children.

Sadly certain political and religious movements are willing to ruthlessly destroy nature and promote poverty to further their aims.

Mthson said at November 18, 2007 2:55 AM:

Even better: Mali and Niger currently top the list with a fertility rate over 7.

Brock said at November 18, 2007 11:01 PM:

You guys are off the reservation. Immoral to provide food without also providing surgery? How is that ever going to happen?

Our food subsidies are immoral. Africans cannot feed themselves because we keep wiping out their agricultural industries with our market forces (sure their governments don't help, but you know what I mean). But the Earth can sustain many people that it does today once we have the oil habit kicked. Cheap solar or more advanced energy and vertical farming will help us clear the last two major hurdles between the present state and a society that is primarily urban and allows vast swaths of the Earth to return to their pristine (and biome/habitat supporting) states.

The most frustrating (to me) thing about the medicine-driven extinction is that it's all based on ignorance. Chinese medicines don't frakking work, but the peasants keep using it because they don't know/trust Western medicines that do. The Earth cannot produce sufficient bears and tigers to meet this need, but we face no such restriction with Tylenol.

Randall Parker said at November 19, 2007 5:36 PM:


I've been hearing for years from a coalition of libertarians and Western general opportunity bashers of how Western governments' barriers to agricultural imports and subsidies by Western countries have held down and impoverished Africa. This explanation is wanting on a few points:

1) Many (most?) Africans who farm are too poor to make enough to sell.

2) A large and growing portion of the African population is moving to cities. They benefit from cheaper agricultural products.

3) The push toward biomass energy combined with Asian industrialization have caused a huge increase in agricultural prices. The Africans can sell abroad for much higher prices.

4) The US does import large amounts of agricultural products such as vegetables from Mexico and apples from New Zealand and water chestnuts from China. I see "Made In XXX" where XXX is not America on lots of food products I buy.

As for birth control in the poor countries: We and they would benefit greatly if we gave them free Norplant, free sterilization, and other birth control. Offering money for birth control is probably a good idea too and will reduce hunger and species extinctions.

aa2 said at November 19, 2007 9:29 PM:

Brock.. I agree flooding their nations with cheap food and putting their local farmers out of business is also immoral.

There is nothing wrong with saying to Africans or others who literally cannot feed themselves we are willing to save your life, but you have to have your tubes tied first. We do exactly that with stray animals. When we don't do that, the people have many children who then grow up starving, desperate and suffering. So where 10 person was hungry 50 years later 100 people may be hungry. Yet the environment around them gets decimated in addition.

If they refuse birth control, then there are billions of other people needing help in the world. I also support paying third world women 4,000$ each or ten years income in some areas if they will get their tubes tied. Imagine some of these resource rich African nations if they had kept their populations at say 1 million instead of ballooning to 10 million with short sighted or twisted western intervention. Each person would get 10 times the royalties from resources on average. Frankly a lot of the third world could have looked like Kuwait.. instead of like Nigeria.

Randall Parker said at November 19, 2007 10:52 PM:


We aren't flooding Africa with cheap food. World food prices keep going up as population growth, economic growth, and demand for biofuel energy push up food prices. Oil costs are starting to contribute to food price inflation as well.

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