South Korean officials have launched a crackdown on the smuggling into the country of human flesh capsules. The development marks the latest front in a battle against traditional medicine's more unacceptable practices.
South Korean officials began their crackdown on the illegal trade of human flesh capsules from China in response to soaring demand.
The country's customs officers have discovered 35 smuggling attempts of about 17,450 capsules since August.
The exact origin of the pills is unclear and it has proved a sensitive issue for Chinese officials, who have so far refused to reveal where exactly the flesh comes from, but they are known to be produced from the bodies of dead babies and fetuses - chopped into pieces and dried on a stove.
Made in northeastern China, the capsules are seen some to boost male virility. Others believe the pills to be a panacea that can cure any disease.
Controversial ingredients in traditional medicine
The seizures highlight growing friction between practitioners of some types of traditional medicine and their opponents who say medicine can be practiced without the use of body parts or endangered animals.
Poaching and illegal trade for traditional remedies is contributing to the extinction of some animals. The Asiatic black bear, for example, is killed for its bile, which is used to treat fevers, liver and eye problems. The bile is extracted from the animals while they are still alive, in a process that activists describe as a form of torture.
Asia's taste for shark fin soup is seen as a major threat to shark populations. Marine protection groups say up to 73 million sharks are killed annually to satisfy demand for the delicacy, valued for its medicinal as well as culinary properties.
The fate of dwindling tiger populations poses great concern for Indian and Laotian authorities. Poachers can earn large sums for tiger bones, which are highly valued in China and Vietnam. Asia's tiger population has plummeted in the last century from around 100,000 to an estimated 3,200.
African rhino populations also appear to be jeopardized as demand for rhino horn hits a new high. The lucrative trade has brought renewed pressure on the white and black rhino populations following a period in which painstaking conservation efforts led to a rise in their numbers. While demand for rhino horn has declined in China, where legal steps to observe an international ban has been accompanied by general cultural shift away from the product, it has recently skyrocketed in Vietnam.
Vietnam's own Javan rhinoceros population finally died out in 2010 despite efforts to protect it.
Campaign to increase public awareness
A group of Chinese celebrities, notably the basketball star Yao Ming, recently underlined a shift in cultural attitudes by speaking out against shark fin and bear bile products.
That came after Hong Kong-based luxury hotel chain Shangri-La announced it would stop serving shark fin at its 72 properties worldwide. The campaign to protect the marine predators it seems, has also been gaining ground among Chinese consumers.
Bad rap for Chinese medicine
Many mainstream practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine are also keen to distance themselves from such practices which have given their profession a bad rap.
Last August, the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Council of Colleges of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine released a statement opposing the use of rhino horn in medicines.
"There is no evidence that rhino horn is an effective cure for cancer and this is not documented in traditional Chinese medicine nor is it approved by the clinical research," said the president of both organizations Lixin Huang in a statement published on the organizations' websites. Huang described such practices as a "misinterpretation" of Chinese medicine and also called for an international ban on tiger products.
While illicit ingredients become harder to find, demand appears unlikely to diminish radically any time soon. For the criminal gangs who make their living in the trade, profits look set to become all the greater. For opponents, the battle may be set to get harder.
Author: Richard Connor (AP, AFP, dpa)
Editor: Sarah Berning