Poaching & People: The Ethics of Ethnozootherapy in Traditional Chinese Medicine

Zootherapy, at least in the West, usually connotes harmlessly using animals, especially dogs, to aid human recovery from psychological problems. However, across continents and across the hemisphere, specifically in China, ethnozootherapy is known by traditional practitioners and their millions of consumers as the usage of animals (which is usually neutral or beneficial to humans and detrimental to animals) in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). In particular, horns of sub-Saharan African rhinos are usually acquired through poaching (which is the second cause of endangerment and extinction after sport hunting) in African countries such as South Africa and Kenya, shipped to China, and purchased by TCM practitioners to incorporate the horn into medicines that claim to be everything from headache medicine to cancer-curers. While this practice of TCM is flourishing because of the value instilled by older generations and the Chinese government to preserve traditions and practices that have already passed the test of time (thousands of years), the 30,000 African rhinos that are alive today are not flourishing, and may not even live to see 2030, given how rampant and frequent of a problem poaching is. So, given the ethical values of responsibility and accountability, should China focus on preserving and respecting TCM and Chinese culture as a whole, as they are doing now, by allowing this practice to continue without legal repercussions, or, focus on preserving and respecting the lives of extremely endangered African rhinos by reinstituting the ban on the trade of these parts to TCM practitioners?


In this paper, I will focus on the practice of ethnozootherapy, which takes the form of using poaching-acquired African rhino horns in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), and the ethical dilemmas that this poses to the many stakeholders, from East to West, and from animal to human. Specifically, my ethical question will focus on China and their role in supporting or prohibiting this practice of African rhinoceros (rhino) horn use in TCM. Given the ethical values of responsibility and accountability, should China focus on preserving and respecting TCM and Chinese culture as a whole, as they are doing now, by allowing this practice to continue without legal repercussions, or, focus on preserving and respecting the lives of extremely endangered African rhinos by reinstituting the ban on the trade of these parts to TCM practitioners?


Traditional Medicine (TM) has many other names with a range of varying connotations. To name a few, it has also been called indigenous medicine, non-conventional medicine, alternative medicine, ethnomedicine, and ethnopharmacology. All of these terms, at large, have the same meaning; they are medicines that are used by groups of native and indigenous ethnic groups all over the world, especially in the continents of the Americas, Africa, and Asia. The main factor that distinguishes traditional, or indigenous, medicine, from conventional, or Western, medicine, is the incorporation of “health practices, approaches, knowledge and beliefs incorporating plant, animal and mineral based medicines, spiritual therapies, manual techniques and exercises, applied singularly or in combination to treat, diagnose and prevent illnesses or maintain well-being” (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov). Thus, such beliefs and practices may not always be able to be explained through a scientific methodology (which relies on hypotheses, experimentation, and concrete results). Additionally, depending on the practice and ethnic groups using the medicine, there could be an utter lack of incorporation of Western medical practices due to practitioners’ distrust of Christianity and Western medicine (WM), because of European-induced genocides, slavery, and colonialism, “limited accessibility, availability and affordability of modern medicine” or, just a “deep rooted cultural trust” in TM (bmccomplementalternmed.biomedcentral.com).

Ancient Traditional Chinese Medicine

Traditional Chinese Medicine was inspired by Taoism which was founded in 300 or 400 BCE based on the writings of Chinese writer and philosopher, Laozi (Lao-tzu). This belief system emphasizes that “there is central or organizing principle of the Universe, a natural order or a ‘way of heaven’, Tao, that one can come to know by living in harmony with nature and hence with the cosmos and the Universe” (nationsonline.org). TCM draws from Confucianism as well, which was founded in 479 BCE based on the works of Chinese politician and philosopher, Confucius, that stresses the importance of “achiev[ing] harmony, the most important social value” and “Ren” [a] central ethical principle, [which] is equivalent to the concepts [of] love, mercy, and humanity. It is best explicated by Confucius in the following statement: “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself” (geriatrics.stanford.edu). These thousand-year-old spiritual and philosophical values inspired practices, such as acupuncture and Tai-chi, which were founded in 6000 BC and 1670 BCE respectively, that are still prevalent in Chinese society today. And, they rubbed off on medical practices in neighboring countries, especially Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and Taiwan.

Zootherapy & Ancient Traditional Chinese Medicine

Zootherapy, at least in Western Medicine (WM,) connotes harmlessly using animals for the benefits of humans. For example, animal-assisted therapy is used to alleviate the effects of mental health diseases in humans. There is usually a hope, for example, with service dogs, that not only is the animal not being harmed in the process, but also being benefitted. This reflects on the West’s relationship with animals, especially those that are domesticated and/or considered to be of the charismatic megafauna category.

However, in most traditional medical systems, specifically TCM, zootherapy (or ethnozootherapy) denotes acquiring various animal parts through harming, and usually killing, the animal, and using these parts in medicine that benefits humans. Zootherapy via the usage of rhino horns in TCM became especially popularized in the 16th century by Li Shih-chen (1518-1593), also known as “China’s greatest naturalist,” (savetherhino.org) who claimed that the rhino horn could cure everything from “snakebites, hallucinations, typhoid, headaches, carbuncles, vomiting, food poisoning, and ‘devil possession’ (savetherhino.org). For the practice of zootherapy in TCM, the horn is ground into a fine powder and mixed with water to drink, or encapsulated in the form of a pill, by the practitioner, to be taken with water.

Zootherapy & Modern Traditional Chinese Medicine

Chinese culture is deeply rooted in respecting elders and traditions, so TCM and it’s accompanying practices have persevered, even despite the fact that they are rooted in philosophy-based religion, and China is an Atheist country with a communist government. In fact, “[f]rom 1911 until 1949, Republican China tried to establish a modern state medical system based on Western biomedicine. The practice of TCM was discouraged. However, after the People’s Republic of China was formed in 1949 [by Mao Zedong], Chinese medicine was re-established as a national system of medicine. It helped reassert the value and authority of Chinese culture,” especially when, “[b]y 1955 there were four Chinese medical colleges, and practice of Chinese medicine became institutionalised nationwide” (broughttolife.sciencemuseum.org.uk).

For China’s middle class, if conventional, Western medicine doesn’t alleviate illness, then some will resort to TCM. In fact, some stick completely to TCM because it claims to use fewer chemicals than Western medicine. There are about 3.39 million doctors and 500,000 TCM practitioners in China, and both are considered to be well-respected positions, (although the former job is more recognized as a “good job” internationally, and the latter is more recognized in rural areas of China). Both medical professionals are taught “integrated medicine…[which] was established in the 1920s” and melds together Western biomedicine and Chinese medicine, which “refers to ancient key texts for its theoretical framework, [and]…has traditionally been an elite medical system…used by the wealthy and educated” (broughttolife.sciencemuseum.org.uk).

Practitioners get a source of income from this type of work – given that “[t]he illegal trade of global wildlife and natural resources is worth nearly $213 billion a year,” and the trade for rhino horn, in particular, is worth $192 million (theatlantic.com). The trade itself has been made more efficient due to technology, social media, and most importantly, the black market that was created after China and its administrative body, the State Council, “join[ed] CITES [The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species],” banned imports in 1981, “exports in 1988” (savetherhino.org), and, finally, banned the rhino horn and tiger skin trade in 1993 by making it domestically “illegal to sell, purchase, import, export or even carry tiger bones and rhinoceros horns in China.” (nytimes.com). Even after the ban was instituted and legalized, though, China never cracked down on the black market that was created, since its “…capitalist economy and less state-run business, individual entrepreneurs and private business have created more varied avenues for illegal trade.” (savetherhino.org)

Just very recently, in November of 2018, China lifted the ban, which is unsurprising considering Sino-African relations, and how much China and individual poachers are benefitting from poaching. Some African economists describe China’s investment in China as “neo”, or new, colonialism, since China is the one that has the most economic benefit from the trade of endangered animal parts. Even excluding this poaching trade, China, for example, benefits from buying mining companies in countries such as Congo for minerals such as cobalt (for cell phones and other technological devices) and manganese.

China has a population of 1.39B people, with about 3.5M millionaires, and about 31%, or 420M people in its middle class (in about 120M households.) This means that millions of people, in one way or another, are using some form or practice of ethnozootherapy in Traditional Chinese Medicine. By 2022, as shown in the image, 54% of China will be in the upper middle class, which makes anywhere from $50,000 to $500,000. This is why, much to China’s disdain, most of everyone’s eyes are on China – the large number of people creates a large demand for the horn that exceeds the supply/amount of rhinos. After all, the horns are sawed off of the rhinos (which bleed to death), shipped to China, where tycoons (millionaires or billionaires) buy them and gift them to practitioners as an indicator of their success and a way to flaunt their wealth to others. Or, TCM practitioners buy the horn themselves.

Western Medicine & Traditional Chinese Medicine

Medicine is defined as “the science or practice of the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disease.” Science is defined as the “pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence.” (sciencecouncil.org) Some of the steps of the scientific method are objective observation, evidence, and experimentation, but studies have shown that using rhino horns in TCM doesn’t benefit the body (the harm to animals seems to outweigh the benefit of the treatment to humans.) The horn, according to a study run by scientists from Ohio University, “is composed [almost] entirely of keratin,” which is found in the hair and nail, but has “dense mineral deposits made of calcium and melanin in the middle” (scientificdaily.com.) Even despite this, Traditional Chinese Medicine has its own medical journal, which seems contradictory to those who oppose the branch of medicine and/or its practice of ethnozootherapy. This calls into question whether TCM and other ethnomedicines be defined as sciences if they were founded upon religion, spiritualism, and subjectivity. Or would that just pushing Western ideals of how we encourage the separation of religion (and other forms of personal beliefs) and medicine?

Africa & Modern Traditional Chinese Medicine

Given that the poaching of endangered animal species takes place in Africa, there is no surprise that the effects of ethnozootherapy for Traditional Chinese Medicine proves to be the most detrimental to the continent. As of now, there are 30,000 rhinos alive, and five species of rhinos left today in the world. Two of the five species, which are the Black and White rhinos, can be found in sub-Saharan Africa, especially in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia, etc., and are thus sought the most after for TCM by poachers to be exported to China for great profit. As a result, their population numbers, especially within the late 20th century and the early 21st century until today, are dwindling frighteningly quickly – as there are only 5,000 black rhinos and 18,000 white rhinos left in the world today. This, as evidenced in the image, has resulted in the cost of the rhino horn itself being high – each kilogram of a horn rewards the poacher with anywhere from $20,000 to $300,000.

The pushing of rhinos (and other endangered animals that are native to Africa) towards the brink of extinction has resulted in devastating effects. Besides more direct effects such as changes in the food chain (which impacts other herbivores such as zebras and gazelles), the impact of poaching on the African economy, and specifically, its ecotourism industry, has been disastrous. There has said to have been about a $70 billion loss to the ecotourism industry (phys.org), which has pushed African government officials to act. In particular, Kenya, in May 2018, proposed the idea, despite its backlash, of instituting a death penalty instead of the normal $200,000 fine for poaching (independent.co.uk). The idea does not pardon poachers who poach as their last resort for employment, especially in countries with high unemployment and low literacy rates due to low GPDs and the corruption that runs rampant in many African governments. There are also increasing amounts of efforts to crack down on the trade through car searches and canines sniffing out to see if there are any tusks. To some, this may seem that the Kenyan government considers endangered animal lives and human lives (based on the severity of the punishment) to be equal, which is considered to be a very Westernized state of mind, given our close relationships with animals of the charismatic megafauna and/or domesticated categories.


For the sake of my research, I focused on the two ethical values of responsibility and accountability. Though the two terms are commonly used interchangeably in colloquial language, they actually have different denotations that distinguish them from each other. Essentially, the “main difference between responsibility and accountability is that responsibility can be shared while accountability cannot. Being accountable not only means being responsible for something but also ultimately being answerable for your actions. Also, accountability is something you hold a person to only after a task is done or not done. Responsibility can be before and/or after a task.” (diffen.com) Thus, I will distinguish between responsibility and accountability in the following subsections.

Responsibility: A Producer v. Consumer Debate

There are many stakeholders involved of this ethical dilemma, so most of them should amass various levels of responsibility. This turns this scenario into a producer vs consumer debate. There are even multiple producers and consumers – the producers being the African poachers, the tycoons who buy the horn (who usually have connections to the government), and the practitioners, who may, perhaps, use the medicine themselves, and the consumers are the millions of average Chinese citizens who buy the medicine to use. Outside of the producers and consumers, there are additional stakeholders that could be held responsible: such as the rhino, the environment, the Chinese government and governments in various African governments. In my opinion, the most important producer, though, is the poacher, practitioner, and Chinese government, whereas the most important consumer is the Chinese citizen.

I think that the consumers of the rhino horn, who are predominantly millions of middle-class Chinese people, are the least responsible because they, usually, use the medicine in compliance with family and societal norms that prioritize respecting traditions and belief systems that have been upheld for generations. After all, Westerners also use medicine and remedies that we have been told to use by our families, that may not have even been approved by research. The stakeholder that is not the most or least responsible is the practitioner, since, essentially, they are doing their job, which is to fulfill the request of the patient. Technically, they are still in compliance with the Hippocratic Oath (which follows more Western ideals), since they are practicing non-maleficence by not harming the patient. This is because, “the centers of the horns have dense mineral deposits of calcium and melanin…but the concentration of horn given by a traditional Chinese medicine specialist are many many times lower than used in…experiments,” – meaning that, essentially, according to “Raj Amin at the Zoological Society of London…, you’d do just as well chewing on your fingernails” (pbs.org). One of the most responsible parties would be the poachers, who are the ones doing the killing, and the second would be the Chinese government, who, by lifting the ban, are incentivizing the practice to continue.


I think that it is difficult to determine which sole stakeholder will be held accountable for poaching in China, so I’d like to challenge the notion that only one party can be held accountable for a problem or situation. While it is the demand of consumers that essentially causes the poaching in the first place, it can also be argued that the poachers are causing the poaching, since they, after all, are doing the killing. This is the most probable, and perhaps the only, stance, that Kenya took and could take when deciding to possibly institute a death penalty, which would hold rhino poachers accountable for the poaching and trading of endangered rhinos’ horns in an attempt to make amends for the economic losses caused by poaching.

But who could China hold the most accountable (if they choose to do so,) and who would answer for their crime? To a more extreme end, who should and could be punished for this practice: the poacher in Africa, the tycoon who buys the horn and gifts it, the practitioner who uses the horn, the average Chinese citizen who buys the medicine, or the government for lifting the ban? It would be hard for China to hold people accountable, since there are so many people involved knowingly as well as unknowingly in a situation of such a large scale. And, it would be irrational to hold millions of people accountable after the government has given them the “green light” for consuming poaching-acquired medicine, even if some believe that consumers should make the time to research about the origins of products they consume and the ethicality of practices that are used to create those products.

It it clear that China, at the moment, has a government that is saying that they are prioritizing the preservation of traditional culture over animals’ lives, and implicitly prioritizing economic profit to encourage the growth of their quickly growing middle class. Thus, the Chinese government should be held the most accountable because they are allowing this practice to happen. The reasons that the Chinese government pose for reinstituting the ban are preposterous because, in my opinion, they are just covers for greed.

If the Chinese government truly wanted to preserve tradition and it’s accompanying religious aspects, then they would be familiar with the ideologies of Confucianism and Taoism, which emphasize the opposite of what the practice of ethnozootherapy for TCM emphasizes. The former belief system emphasizes harmony, and, according to “Harvard professor Tu Weiming…avoids anthropocentrism (“human-centeredness”) in favor of anthropocosmism (or seeing humans as part and parcel of the cosmos)” (advocacy.britannica.com). Weiming admits that “[a]lthough Confucius says a great deal about human beings and human society, he says next to nothing about animals, let alone how to treat them.” Though this is the perfect excuse for Chinese government officials to take advantage of the gray area, if they truly cared about preserving religion and spirituality, they would have been able to support their argument for lifting the ban with direct citations from religious and spiritual texts, which they have not done. It almost seems as if the passage that mentions ‘that Confucius never fished without a net or shot a bird at rest’ has been forgotten or disregarded. Confucius would have regarded the acts of fishing with more than a rod or shooting a nesting bird as unethical. A major reason for this is that a gentleman never takes unfair advantage of anyone or anything. Yet another reason had to do at least as much with the element of sport that is part of entering the Confucian Way of striving to become a gentleman” (advocacy.britannica.com). If Confucius frowned upon fishing with something more than a rod or hunting peaceful birds, what would Confucius think of the government allowing poachers to saw off the horns of peaceful, plant-eating rhinos and leaving them to bleed to death?

The latter, Taoism, is based on Loazi’s Tao-Te-Ching (The Way and Its Power), which stresses a “classical and foundational [T]aoist worldview [that] is thus more theocentric ([T]ao-centered) and cosmocentric and less anthropocentric.” The philosophical system encourages that one “renounce[s] an instrumentalist and desire-based existential mode—… [and] return[s] to one’s original condition of attunement with the [T]ao—[so that] one may then accept animals and other organic beings as one’s teachers” (advocacy.britannica.com). Louis Komjathy continues to explain that according to Taoist beliefs, “[i]f one recognizes this value and wishes that such lessons be available to others, one must work to preserve wild places and make space for the wild being of animals. They are essential to animal flourishing. They are necessary for human participation in the Dao. The Zhuangzi in turn urges one to imagine a world free of cages, corrals, hooks, lures, nets, pens, snares, and traps (chapters 1, 3, 10, 18, 20, and 23)” (advocacy.britannica.com). Additionally, for this belief system specifically, there is no gray area – in one of The Ten Precepts of Initial Perfection (Chuzhen jie) which lays the basic ethical guidelines for Taoists to follow, the first precept prohibits killing of “anything that lives in order to satisfy [humans’] appetites. Always act with kindness and compassion to all, even insects and worms” (The Daoist Tradition: An Introduction). So, there is no excuse for the Chinese government to not cite specific religious evidence when they proclaimed that they wanted to preserve culture by lifting the ban. To me, it seems that this is a baseless claim on the State Council’s part because they are not providing rationale for their statement. And, because China has a communist government, there is a possibility that they are withholding religious texts from Chinese citizens, and not allowing them to interpret it for themselves, which sustains the demand for the rhino horn.

As for another stakeholder shouldering part of the blame, I personally would consider poachers to be held the second-most accountable, since they are the ones who are doing the killing, and all types of poaching, whether it be for trophies or for medicine, which are equally bad from a hedonist consequentialist standpoint. However, there are varying reasons that poachers poach, especially in African countries wrought with internal government corruption. Most poach because of the lack of employment and educational opportunities, knowing that if they poach, they will be committing a crime, but providing food and shelter for themselves, and, usually, their families. If this is the case, I believe that the poacher should still be held accountable, but should not be faced with a $200K fine or the death penalty. After all, crimes, even with “purer” motives, are still crimes. Instead, efforts should be made by the African countries themselves to bolster their economies, and literacy and education programs, so that people will not have to resort to killing animals. A focus on rehabilitation and education for African poachers instead of jail time would be the most rational, in my opinion, and could even help support the economy.


Despite having focused on one endangered animal and one country in my research, I think that it is clear to me the harmful impact of rhino poaching, even if it is for the fortification of cultural value. Having said that, however, cultural values, especially in a society such as China’s, cannot be disregarded. Thus, it is hard for me, personally, to decide whether we should prioritize the preservation of animals’ lives or human culture. But, I do think that when it comes time to discover what to prioritize, it should definitely not be left up to the West (and specifically, the American government, the United Nations, and environmental organizations that spread awareness about the lives of poached and endangered animals) to decide.  Additionally, in the spirit of anti-paternalism, due to the fact that Western Medicine has a fair share of practices that were not always effective and morally sound, such as bloodletting, during the 17th and 18th centuries especially, to maintain the “humors”, and, currently, using animals (mostly rodents) in medicine to test drugs, and incorporating animal (bee and snake) venoms into our skincare. Popular sovereignty, instead should be used – citizens of communities in African countries affected by poaching, as well as both groups of citizens, should be allowed to vote on the fate of these animals after efforts are made to inform Chinese citizens about the making of their medicines, which is through the trafficking and murdering of animals such as the rhino. Of course, I imagine that this would be tricky given the wide range of opinions regarding Sino-African relations, as well as the difference in government type between China and sub-Saharan African countries.

If worse comes to worst and there is no effort to discuss this pressing environmental issue, or a lack of consensus between governments, citizens, etc. then I think it would be best for the Chinese government, if they are still hesitant to re-institute the ban (which is most likely the case,) to possibly raise the prices so ridiculously high for rhino horns so that almost no one will be able to afford them (which could significantly reduce the economic demand, and eliminate the need for rhinos to be killed to sustain the practice). Or, realistically speaking, since China, like any other country, has the intrinsic (and sometimes extrinsic) motive to want to make a profit from trade, they could instead urge healers to shift towards using more plants (which are usually herbs) instead of animals, since I am sure that there is some TCM practice and other ethnomedicines (especially Ayurvedic medicine) that incorporates vegetations into their medicines. This could ensure that Chinese culture is still being preserved and respected. China would just be letting go of more harmful practice, and the lives of animals would be preserved and respected as well, since, if rhinos go extinct, then the practice will go extinct as well. After all, it seems that some of the greatest intellectual contributors to Chinese culture and its belief systems, Confucius and Laozi (Lao-tzu), seemed to subtly defend the lives of rhinos and other animals in their works.

By Afia Oduro-Manu

Works Cited

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