What Makes Mammals Targets For Folk Medicine?
Ingredients derived from animals are everywhere: our food, our clothing, and even medicinal products often use animal products. Folk-medicine in particular relies on animal-derived ingredients — though many advocates might be aware of the use of things like rhino horn in Asia, this also encompasses products like shark cartilage in North America. The practice of using animal parts for questionably medicinal purposes is a global phenomenon, not tied to one culture over another.
In this study, researchers in Brazil looked into what life-history and ecological traits were correlated with the use of wild mammals in traditional medicine.They looked at the relationship between geographic range size, body mass, and genetic relatedness with medicinal use. They also looked at whether there is a correlation between medicinal use and extinction threat.
In total, they found 521 mammal species used to source ingredients to treat 371 ailments. This represents about 9% of all recognized mammal species today. Africa, Latin America, and Asia have particularly strong folk medicine traditions and use a greater number of mammals than other regions of the world —however, the authors note that the use of mammals for folk medicine is indeed found all around the world. Mammals are often targets for hunting, and their by-products would be made use of as well. This could also explain why animal flesh is not often used in traditional medicines.
Large mammals are seen as more versatile and are used to treat more diseases, likely because they have larger body parts containing more raw materials. They might also be easier to extract than the equivalent parts of smaller mammals.
More closely related species are perceived to have similar medicinal benefits and are used to treat similar diseases. They found that the parts of the animal that are most often used are the hard parts, (like the bones, scales, claws, and horns), fats, oils, and secretions. This might explain why closely related animals are seen as having similar medicinal benefits, because these traits can remain common amongst them. The authors note that this pattern could be helpful in predicting what species might become targets for medicinal use in the future as current targets become rarer, more threatened, and/or more protected under conservation regulations.
An interesting and counterintuitive finding was that marsupials that cover a larger geographic range size tend to be used to treat a wider variety of diseases, but this isn’t true for other mammals. This could be because non-marsupial mammals are much more diverse than marsupials, and separate peoples would have access to only a few marsupial species, but many more non-marsupials.
Finally, contrary to the expectations of the researchers, they found that the body mass and therapeutic versatility of a species was actually not correlated with its threat category. They note that this may have been due to the large variability in the number of species included in each category. They still warn that species in the most endangered group are larger on average than those in the least endangered group, and suggest that exploitation for medicinal use is an overlooked source of threat and may cause non-random extinction patterns for mammals.
Doing advocacy related to animals used in folk medicine can be tricky. Advocates who are non-indigenous or not from the country or region being discussed should be cautious that their work does not position people or practices in a way that encourages a virulent racist response — as reactions to the outbreak of Covid-19 have done to people from China. It is likely that the most effective advocacy for wild animals used in this way will come from the culture in question itself, with advocates from elsewhere playing supporting roles.