PETALING JAYA • Chinese medicine shops in Malaysia are doing a roaring trade in wildlife products, mostly from endangered and protected species, despite warnings that the trade is illegal.
A check by Malaysian daily The Star shows the trade is rampant, with at least 11 shops in Petaling Jaya, Kuala Lumpur, George Town, Kuantan and Kuching found to be selling Saiga antelope antlers, reportedly sourced from Russia.
The Saiga antelope, listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, has become even more rare, with more than a third of the global population dying in a mysterious epidemic in May.
It is not just antelope antlers that are up for sale. The shops sell products ranging from pills containing snake or bear gall bladder to porcupine bezoar stones - a mass of food such as grass and herbs trapped in the animal's stomach.
The stones are sold in either raw or powdered form, and come at a steep price; 0.37gm can cost between RM450 and RM900 (S$160 to S$320). The stones are believed to cure dengue fever and the flu.
While not all species of porcupines are protected in Malaysia, the sale of snake and bear gall bladder pills is illegal, said the Star.
Mr Steven Kow, secretary-general of the Federation of Chinese Physicians and Medicine Dealers Association of Malaysia, said it is encouraging shop owners to find alternatives to wildlife products. "There needs to be an awareness programme and more research to see if herbs can be a substitute," he said.
The association has warned its 4,000-plus members not to stock illegal items, adding that they face severe criminal penalties if caught.
Traffic, a wildlife trade monitoring network, reported earlier this year that wildlife medications continue to be popular and the shops selling them are thriving.
While most of the shop owners admitted to The Star that they knew it was illegal to sell the products, they said they had to make a living.
"My customers want them. If I don't sell, others will," said a shop owner in Kuching.
Activists fear the continued sales of such products will lead to the animals' extinction, and put at risk those not on the endangered list.
Traffic's South-east Asia communications officer Elizabeth John warned that porcupines could end up like the tokay gecko, which was once believed to be a cure for Aids.
She said that although there are no statistics to show that Malaysia's porcupine numbers are dwindling, "it might escalate to become a serious problem".
THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK