Traditional Medicine and Conservation - A Critical Issue

From the dawn of the Homo sapien up until the modern day, shamanism and magical rite have been part of human society. With an ever growing population and many people moving away from conventional religion, shamanism and magical thought have only grown. In most of the third world, shamanic practice and magical ritual remain commonplace. Much of the ingredients and tools used in these practices are harvested from the wild. Specific plants and very often animal parts are used in these practices, raising many environmental issues that require discussion.

In most of the third world, shamanistic practice is as strong as ever. Here in South Africa, a Sangoma or traditional healer is never far off, or hard to find, even with western medical practitioners around the corner. It is a cultural practice that by the looks of it, will not pass soon. In the Americas, peyote and ayahuasca ceremonies have grown in popularity so much so, that it is mentioned frequently in popular media. In Asia, traditional eastern medicine is growing alongside the population, not to mention many westerners adopting this form of medicinal practice. This is in no way negative, however, the impact on the environment should definitely be taken into consideration.

Let us take the Rhino for example. There are five species internationally, the African White Rhino (+-20 000), African Black Rhino (+-5000), Greater one-horned Rhino (+-3500), Sumatran Rhino (-100) and the Jarvan Rhino (+-60). Due to conservation programs in the past, the two African rhino species were brought back from near extinction. In recent years, due to poaching of rhinos for their horn in medicinal practice of the far east. Rhino poaching has escalated in Africa to the extent that the West African Black Rhino, a subspecies, has gone extinct as of 2015. In South Africa alone, rhino poaching has increased from 13 in 2007 to 448 in 2011 and 1175 in 2015. If ever you are on Safari and would like to see fire igniting in the eyes of your field guide, start talking about the rhino problem. In the far east, rhino horn is used medically for a variety of ailments including cancer, hangovers, and impotence, and in recent years has evolved into a status symbol to brag about in eastern yuppy culture. The medical value of rhino horn is null, it is made of keratin, the same chemical that human hair and fingernails consist of. Keratin has no medical value whatsoever. The rhino is far from being the only endangered animal harvested from the wilds for shamanic practice. Vulture feathers are used in divination, pangolin scales for medical issues, monkey hand to curse people and tiger bones are even used to make a wine. This is a minute list compared to the amount of critically endangered animals that are being poached and used in such practice.

Moving on from the dark reality mentioned above let us move to the Americas. A medicine that seems to work in the case of psychotherapy, addiction, and advanced spiritual thought is the shamanic use of psychoactive plants, in this case, ayahuasca and peyote. These plants, however controversial, have had the active chemicals and effects well documented and unlike rhino horn, they do have scientific validity. Currently, the trade of rhino horn is internationally illegal, however, the raw material of the ayahuasca vine and peyote cactus is not illegal in most of the world. It is only illegal when ingested, in concentrated form or when grown in mass. With the ever growing popularity of ayahuasca and peyote ceremonies, humanity must be cautious as to where these plants come from. In many cases, the ayahuasca vine is simply harvested in the forest, meaning that in the coming years it will be much more difficult and expensive to use these plants for shamanic practice. Currently, you can buy all the ingredients you wish online for the psychonautic experience you wish, including the ayahuasca vine. In order to prevent the effects of removing them from the environment, these plants must have a controlled alternative source, such as individual growers providing the plants. The popularity of the medicine will not diminish, and with the current legal status of mass growing such plants, the alternative source will remain the wilderness. Only when a sustainable source is provided will the wild plants survive. To make the plants illegal, will cause their destruction in the wilderness.

It is difficult to try and estimate the value of illegal animal and plant trade due to the industry being run in the shadows as part of the black market trade. According to the United Nations Environment Programme in ‘The Analysis of the environmental impacts of illegal trade in wildlife’ it is stated that ‘Although the very nature of ITW means that it will not be possible to obtain fully reliable figures of the values of wildlife being traded illegally, various attempts have been made to estimate its global value, based on different methodologies and subsets of data. The international illegal trade in terrestrial animals and non-timber plants (so excluding timber and fish), for example, has been estimated to be worth between US$7.8 and 10 billion.’ it continues by stating that ‘while the value of the global illegal and unreported fisheries catch was estimated at between US$10 and US$23.5 billion in the same year.’ This is leaving permanent damage on the environment. These are estimates of illegal activity and does not take into account the impact of legal trade. Please visit their website for more information to see the gravity of this situation at

There is nothing wrong with shamanic practice and magical ritual in itself. The problem only arises, when the tools and ingredients of such rituals are taken without thought of consequence from the environment, especially today when our planet and its beings are already at risk. The second problem is one of blatant ignorance, where the practice of alternative medicine is not based on chemical knowledge or psychological healing, but simply one of ancient myth that has been disproved time and time again, such as the case of rhino horn. The third problem is that of law and fear when it comes to psychological and spiritual healing from psychoactive compounds, which has been shown academically to be valuable. The laws prohibiting the production of these plants, cause people to take from nature in fear of being convicted. Clearly, people are not going to stop using these compounds, just as alcohol prohibition did not stop people from drinking. The illegality of a product never stops a consumer but instead feeds a black market.

Before we end up the only living species on earth, we have to understand and act upon the warning signs as quickly as possible. Alternative medicine in terms of chemical composition does have value, but unfortunately much of the ingredients used do not. In traditional magical and shamanic practice, many beliefs and rituals continue to exist that utilize products from endangered animal and plant species. Since a great portion of the natural world is already at risk due to pollution, illegal pet trade and ignorance, the risk of extinction grows ever larger. We are the gardeners of this earth and must not destroy it, for, in turn, we will destroy ourselves.


Green Monkey

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