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.

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