Could Viagra help save tigers?

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Conservationists hope that people who use tiger parts to increase virility might instead turn to pharmaceuticals.. SElefant, Wikimedia Commons
SElefant, Wikimedia Commons

Chinese traditional medicine practitioners have used parts of rare and powerful animals for millennia. Among the ancient remedies is tiger penis to treat erectile dysfunction.

As the Chinese economy has grown so has the number of animals hunted for use in medicines and luxury goods, but the introduction of pharmaceuticals, such as Viagra, may help make a dent in the culling of endangered animals.

"We haven't examined this idea empirically, but it's our belief that the rapid and observable effects of Viagra made it particularly likely to be adopted by people who otherwise avoid Western medicines," said  William von Hippel, a psychologist at the University of New South Wales in Australia. Von Hippel was the lead author of an earlier study which examined Viagra's acceptance in the Chinese market. The research was published in Environmental Conservation.

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Von Hippel's study found that middle-aged men in China had begun using the pharmaceutical treatment for erectile dysfunction in place of tiger penis and other traditional remedies such as seal penis and antler velvet. The study found that the same men continued using traditional remedies for other ailments.

For tigers, an alternative to ancient Chinese remedies could not come sooner.

Of the eight original subspecies of tigers, three have become extinct in the last 60 years, an average of one every 20 years, according to the nonprofit group, Tigers in Crisis.

As few as 20 tigers exist in the wild in China and poachers in India, catering to the Chinese market, are chipping away at that country's tiger populations. Right now about 1,200 tigers survive in India – about half of the population of a decade ago and a fraction of the some 100,000 that existed in the early 20

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So could Viagra offer a viable alternative to those in the market for aphrodisiacs? According to Kineta Hung, associate professor of communications studies at Hong Kong Baptist University, it is possible because traditional remedies are taught alongside western medicine in the Chinese medical system.

"In the first years of medical school, students have to acquire a common background before specializing in either Chinese or western medicine," said Hung. "Because of this, there is no strong barrier to accept the western approach."

Viagra's popularity may have been influenced by its more affordable price tag as well.

"By now 'tiger penis and rhino horns' are very expensive and may not really work," Hung said. "So, this is only affordable to rich consumers. Viagra will definitely be a winner among the rest of the population."

On the other hand, the high price of products made from endangered species can make them a status symbol. Just as during many other nations' rise to power, the lust for luxury items in China has put elephants, tigers, rhinos, sharks, and other high profile creatures in the hunter's cross-hairs.

"There is a lot of cachet in using expensive and exotic treatments, and the same holds for decorations," von Hippel said. "A $20,000 elephant tusk carving is an object of admiration, but a $50 synthetic one isn't, even thought they might look identical."

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The conspicuous consumption habits of the wealthy could change in response to the growing environmental movement in China, just as the use of fur in fashion was changed by protests in Europe and North America, suggested Hung.

"The movement, however, will need to be skillfully packaged," Hung said.

Hung pointed out that the popular Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton brand of apparel and accessories recently introduced synthetics as an animal-friendly replacement for real leather in products sold in China. However, she doubts that extreme luxury brands like Hermes will follow suit any time soon.

Von Hippel also noted that an environmental movement is beginning to take root in China, which in time may reduce the poaching of endangered species for medicines and luxuries.

"There appears to be a nascent environmental movement in China," von Hippel said. "Indeed, I think the Chinese experience is likely to be typical, in that countries focus first on wealth and only after most of the people enter the middle class do they become concerned about environmental issues."