150 million seahorses are killed annually to supply Chinese traditional medicine; biologists estimate they will be wiped out within two decades
Chinese traditional medicine (TCM) believes that seahorse can treat kidney ailments, urinary incontinence, high cholesterol, lymph node disorders, goiter, circulatory problems and impotence, some 90 TCM products containing seahorses are sold in China, where they have been valued for their purported medicinal effect for around 600 years. Of course, these claims have no basis in science; they are based on superstition.
"Thirty-two countries and regions are involved in harvesting some 20,000,000 seahorses each year," according to Encyclopedia Britannia, with major sources being the Philippines, Indonesia and India. "[Y]et production already is failing to meet a worldwide demand that had reached 500 tons annually by the beginning of the 21st century. China's demand alone was 200-250 tons per year, 95 percent of which had to be imported. The rising demand, according to the World Nature Foundation, had resulted, already in 1996, in the reduction of populations of the known 35 varieties of seahorses by more than half."
Seahorses are "overexploited and in grave danger of extinction," according to Norah Saarman of the College of Natural Resources at the University of California, Berkeley. "An estimated 24.5 million or 70 tons of seahorses are sold annually for use in Chinese medicine," she writes, noting that TCM values them because they are "high in yang, the active male force."
"But seahorses are a fragile species that respond quickly to habitat destruction and overfishing and may not be able to survive the current rate of harvest. Seahorses are sparsely distributed and don't travel much, so once they're removed from an area they don't return easily. They also remain faithful to their mate and don't reproduce quickly, making them exceptionally vulnerable to population reduction when too many are caught at sexual maturity."
To protect them from exploitation, seahorses were added to Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) agreement in 2004. But without proper enforcement and the growing demand in China, the harvesting of these beautiful and mysterious creatures continues. Also, Indonesia, Japan, Norway, and South Korea have chosen to opt out of the trade rules set by CITES.
Two years after seahorse were placed on CITES Appendix II, Saarman found "large jars and trays of seahorses available in almost every herbal supply shop in Chinatown, San Francisco."
But the original estimate of 20 million seahorses killed per year is now considered a mere fraction of the real number, as new undercover filming "found at least 150 million of the fragile creatures are now killed to make its products every year in China—seven times the official figure," according to the Daily Mail.
"It' s a huge underestimate," said marine biologist Kealan Doyle. "I visited stores which had something like 30,000 dried seahorses in bags piled from floor to ceiling and there are 6,000 such stores in Hong Kong alone. We are not talking about a slow decline here, this is an absolute decimation of this unique creature which has been with us for millions of years. At this rate, it will be wiped out in between 10 and 20 years."
"Many, many more people can now afford seahorses who couldn't before," said Doyle, "and what's really worrying is that they are now commonly being ground up and made into pills."
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