Despite Predictions, Viagra Hasn't Stemmed Trade in Threatened Wildlife

By John Roach
for National Geographic News
May 31, 2001
When the male potency drug Viagra came on the market in 1998,
conservationists and animal protection groups were hopeful it would
produce an unintended side effect: an end to world demand for animal
parts—often from endangered species —used as aphrodisiacs.

In the case of harp seals, which are not endangered, anecdotal evidence has suggested that Viagra may have helped to shrink trade in seal genitals used in traditional medicines to enhance male virility. But conservationists and others caution against overstating the significance of such evidence, saying the link is tenuous.

Moreover, they point out, aphrodisiacs make up a very small percentage of the overall market for traditional medicines derived from animal parts. The possible impact of Viagra on trade in seal genitals surfaced recently in a preliminary report to the Canadian government by an advisory panel on long-term management of the Atlantic seal population.

It was one sentence in a 68-page report, said Ian McLaren, a marine biologist at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia who headed the panel. It was an anecdotal comment thrown in by one of the sealers, who said it might be one of the factors in the decline in the seal penis market. It is plausible, that is all.

Tina Fagan, executive director of the Canadian Sealers Association, said the market for seal genitals has essentially dried up. Ten years ago the male organs of seals were selling for Canadian $100 (U.S. $65) a piece, but dropped to less than a tenth of that amount only a couple of years later. "This year there is [no market] at all," she noted.

But Viagra did not have that impact, Fagan added, explaining that the decline was well underway before the drug was introduced in 1998.

Thriving Seal Industry

Last year about 92,000 harp seals were harvested on the ice floes off Newfoundland and Quebec—down from 282,000 seals killed in 1998.

Nathalie Chalifour of World Wildlife Fund Canada dispelled speculation that the availability of Viagra was responsible for the steep decline. Instead, the reduced 2000 harvest was likely the result of poor ice conditions and an oversaturated market for seal pelts, she said.

Meanwhile, the seal hunting industry in Canada appears to be on the rebound. Markets are growing and developing, and the industry is on its way back, said Fagan.

Records of how many seals were killed in this year's hunt were still coming in, but the numbers show that at least 214,000 harp seals have been harvested so far, according to Fagan. The pelts are now selling for up to Canadian $42 (U.S. $27) apiece, more than three times higher than the $13 (U.S. $8.50) they brought only a year ago.

In a policy deplored by animal rights activists, Canada annually sets legal quotas on the total number of seals that are allowed to be commercially harvested for their pelts and meat. The number is determined based on scientists' recommendations of how many of the animals can be slaughtered without posing a risk to the overall population.

The allowable quota could jump dramatically under a proposal by the government of Newfoundland. It wants to cull upwards of 4 million harp seals—as much as 80 percent of the total population—to expedite the recovery of depleted cod stocks.

The fish were a mainstay of the province's economy until they were wiped out in the early 1990s by decades of overfishing. But cod are also a staple of the seals' diet, and some scientists have argued that the current robust population of 5.2 million seals hinders the recovery of the fish stocks.

No scientists suggest that seals are responsible for the decline of cod, said McLaren. The question is, are they holding back cod population recovery? Each seal takes a small part. The population as a whole takes a substantial amount.

The government of Newfoundland presented its report to McLaren's panel, which will submit its final report to the federal government in a few weeks.

Animal protection groups argue that a massive kill-off of seals will not solve the problem of reduced cod stocks.

Rick Smith, national director of the Canadian arm of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said such a cull would only increase populations of squid and other cod predators that are also part of harp seals' diet.

It would also harm Canada's image around the world, he added.

The migration of harp seals in the northwest Atlantic is one of the great animal migrations on the planet, said Smith. The only thing that could compare with this is the migration of caribou in the Arctic, one of the greatest wildlife spectacles of the world. This latest suggestion would offer the liquidation of this entire [seal] population.

Larger Problem

Just as the impact of Viagra on the harp seal trade has been found to be insignificant, conservationists have downplayed the drug's potential to curb the trade in wild animal parts for use in Chinese and other traditional medicines. Alleged aphrodisiacs, such as seal and tiger male genitals, make up only a fraction of the medicinal market, they say.

"It is hard to put a single number on the size of the market [for aphrodisiacs], but it is not as much as it gets portrayed in the media," said Chalifour.

She cited as one example the widespread belief that tiger bone and rhino horn are used as aphrodisiacs in traditional Chinese medicine, which is not true. Tiger bone and rhino horn are used, however, to treat arthritis and fevers, respectively, in traditional Chinese madicine.

These and other endangered species continue to be killed as sources of animal parts for a variety of Chinese medicines. To address the problem, some conservationists and practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine have cooperated in recent years in a search for viable alternatives, such as herbal remedies.

Said Chalifour: "While poaching of tigers for bone may no longer be the most immediate threat to tigers' survival in the wild, it is still a significant conservation issue that must not be ignored."

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