Chinese ‘Cooling Drinks’ May Contain Endangered Saiga Antelope Horns

Traditional Chinese Medicine shops in Singapore are selling ‘cooling’ drinks and related products made of endangered saiga antelope horns, says Project: WILD.

AsianScientist (Sep. 10, 2012) – Take a walk down Chinatown in Singapore and you will see stockpiles of antelope horns or products made from antelope horns on sale at almost every Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) shop.

These slightly translucent, ribbed horns typically weigh about 100 grams to over 200 grams, and cost between SGD$260 (USD$200) and SGD$360 (USD$280) per 100 grams of full-sized horns. Only the ribbed exterior of the horn is used for TCM, and horn shavings are also widely sold in transparent, sealed plastic packs.

The core of the horn, which is essentially the bone of the antelope, is not consumed. According to one local seller, the core is sometimes kept to “ward off evil.”

(Photo: Project: WILD).

Bottles of “cooling water” are also widely available for sale here. These drinks are thought to have “cooling properties” that can cure fever and bring down one’s “heatiness.”

A harmless looking bottle of “cooling water” costs SGD$5 and is often sold alongside other Chinese herbal drinks such as barley water or chrysanthemum tea which are priced at SGD$1. The price may be a brow-raiser, but when consumption becomes a habit, how often do consumers stop to ponder about the source of their food or medicine, or even, a bottle of drink?

The ingredients listed at the bottom of the bottle show the words Cornu Saiga tataricae, sometimes misspelled as Cornu Saigae tatariae. Cornu is the scientific name for horn, while Saiga tatarica is the scientific name of the critically endangered saiga antelope.

An international 1993 ban on the trade in rhinoceros horns has added pressure to the population of saigas as their horns quickly became a substitute. The collapse of the Soviet Union also resulted in a breakdown in law enforcement for the illegal hunting of antelopes that roam the steppes of Russia, Central Asia, and Mongolia. The saigas became so heavily hunted that their populations declined by over 95 percent since the early 1990s.

The peculiar looking animal has a distinctly unique over-sized nose structure and has been around since the Ice Age, living alongside mammoths and saber-toothed cats.

As only the male antelopes have horns, selective hunting of male saiga has distorted the sex ratio, causing a collapse of the reproduction rate in the wild. They used to number a million in the early 1990s, but today, the World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF) estimates that the global surviving population may range from 50,000 to 100,000. The Mongolian sub-species (Saiga tatarica mongolica), in particular, has an estimated population of just 750.

Despite the critically endangered status under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) today, the saiga antelope is only listed under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). This means that traders can trade their horns in Singapore, as long as they have a CITES permit.

Many sellers in Singapore reveal that they are aware that the saigas have become increasingly rare and stocks are harder to come by these days. Despite so, they continue to sell the horns to meet strong consumer demand.

On the contrary, a quick survey conducted by Project:WILD among 20 consumers revealed that many believe these antelopes are farmed. Some are under the impression that antelope horns fall off every year as do the antlers on deers. Most believe that the horns are removed without killing the antelopes. The fact remains, however, that these horns come from wild saigas, and unlike deer antlers that fall off every year, antelope horns are permanent features.

The saiga antelope has been extinct in China since the 1960s, and if demand is not curbed and hunting remains uncontrolled, the species may likely face a similar fate elsewhere.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo:
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Jennifer Lee is the founder of marine conservation group Project: FIN, and its wildlife conservation arm, Project: Wild. While Project: FIN focuses on marine conservation, Project: Wild acts as a voice for non-marine wild animals. Jennifer is a Singaporean and her profession is in marketing.

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