Some unexpected relief for endangered species

When Viagra came out, biologists hoped demand for endangered animals would drop. New evidence may support this controversial theory.

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The packages on Makoku Kins's shelves come in dragonlady red with gold, or bright blue. Many contain parts from some of world's most endangered species.

Chinese-medicine practitioners around Asia have long placed faith in pu foods, which come from animal parts coveted for their purported aphrodisiac properties. These include bones or other parts of animals - such as bears, tigers, monkeys, and whales - whose survival on earth wasn't a question when they first became used medicinally.

The international trade in endangered species is partially fueled by demand for such animal parts both for medicinal and aphrodesiac purposes. Ever since the drug Viagra came to market in 1998, conservationists have speculated that it might stem the trade in endangered animals. "In Viagra we now have the potential to eliminate the demand for animal potency products," wrote Frank von Hippel, a conservation biologist, in a 1998 article in Science magazine. "Provided that the distribution and availability of Viagra are ensured, the East Asian market in pu foods could soon fall victim to Viagra's success."

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Some early signs support this theory, but it remains controversial.

A study released in February by Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans links the advent of Viagra with a decrease in the killing of harbor seals - which aren't endangered - for use in aphrodisiacs in Asia. Seal penises are thought to increase male virility. According to the Canadian scientists, some 91,000 seals were killed off Newfoundland and Quebec last year - just a third of the legal quota - compared with 280,000 a few years earlier. After the researchers at the Eminent Seal Panel discovered the sharp decrease in the number of seals killed, they raised the possibility that the seals had Viagra to thank.

"The reduced hunt in 2000 was the result of a number of factors," they wrote. "The increased use of Viagra, as a substitute for seal penises, may also be a factor." The study also suggests that other factors played a role in the dwindling numbers, including a decreased demand for seal meat and a cut in Canadian government subsidies for seal hunting.

In a new, unpublished study, Professor Hippel and his brother, an Ohio State University psychologist, offer an extensive analysis of which species are likely to benefit from Viagra. "We found in that analysis that rhinos, bears, and tigers will not benefit, but that many other species will, including ... seals," says Mr. Hippel, who teaches conservation biology and environmental science at the University of Alaska, in Anchorage.

But some conservation groups suggest that such theories are in need of a cold shower.

Not enough evidence

Nathalie Chalifour, the acting national representative for TRAFFIC Canada, the wildlife-trade monitoring program of the World Wildlife Fund, says that the seals in question are primarily killed for their pelts and meat.

While there has been a decline in demand for both, Ms. Chalifour notes, there is little evidence that seals are killed for the express purpose of being turned into Asian philters.

"My understanding to date is that the seal hunt has never been targeted at the seal penis trade. All the anecdotal evidence that I've come across is that the sealers will sell them if they can, but it's not the driver," says Chalifour. "Unless they can show that the hunt is targeted to penises, perhaps there's a link, but it's pretty tenuous."

Meanwhile, dealers in traditional Chinese medicines say they don't think any laboratory-concocted drug will replace demand for their timeworn remedies.

While pu is hardly a household name here in Japan, many come to pharmacies like this one in search of kanpoyaku, or Chinese medicine, the vast bulk of which is purely herbal.

"This is a totally different thing," says Mr. Kin, who wears a pharmacist's white lab coat and a tidy haircut, as he reads over the back panel of one of his more popular products. His shelves are lined with packages, some of which picture snakes and turtles, others a photo of an aging executive in a business suit flexing his arms, muscle-man style.

Kin's pharmacy specializes in Chinese medicines, but also carries many internationally recognized drugs. It is one of many such shops around Yokohama, home to Japan's largest Chinatown and the country's main port.

"Viagra is something to be taken at a particular time, but this," says Kin, holding up a huge bottle of pills that goes for about $170, "this you take every day to make your body stronger. Once you're taking this, you don't have to take Viagra."

No substitute for the 'real thing'

Kin says that Japanese customers often come looking for herbal and animal-based medicines when a trip to a physician yields no results. "In China, it's the opposite," he says of his homeland. But Kin says he isn't losing business to Pfizer, the manufacturer of Viagra. "I've never heard of anyone quitting this and taking Viagra instead."

Merchants in Chinatown seem to agree. A few blocks away from Mr. Kin's pharmacy is a traditional Chinese foods store where some people come for basic sauces and spices - and sometimes for far stronger stuff. But most aphrodisiac seekers, says shopkeeper Sai Soo, turn to the extract of seal, tiger, and bear in multivitamin-style pills only.

Mr. Soo's shelves are lined with glass jars full of sundry goods such as dehydrated seahorse, snail, and sharkfin - all used to make various medicinal soups and drinks.

"Chinese people have an older way of looking at things - to eat something is a way to cure yourself. It might not be something that the international community accepts, but a lot of people believe shark fins are good for your skin and tiger bones are good for calcium."

But very few, he admits, come looking for the aphrodisiac foods in whole form, "mostly," he says, "because they wouldn't know how to cook with them."

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