Viagra saves seals

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Ten years ago, 152 million men suffered from erectile dysfunction, a problem affecting almost half of all men over fifty. Ageing populations will more than double that number in the next 20 years, to 322 million.

In some parts of the world, particularly in Asia, men traditionally use products made from seals, reindeer, sea horses, sea cucumbers, geckos, and green turtles to treat the problem. Occasionally, they use rhinoceros and tiger organs. This, combined with other factors, threatens many of these species’ survival.

Until 1998, Western doctors had no simple effective solution for the problem, so men naturally looked elsewhere for relief. However, Viagra is relatively cheap and reliable, and within three years after it went on the market ten million men were using it.

Given all this, one might wonder whether men will start using Viagra instead of traditional medicines and if that will help protect the animals. Several articles in Environmental Conservation by William and Frank von Hippel, Norman Chang, and Clara Cheng say “yes!”

In 2004, the authors surveyed 256 men between the ages of 50 and 78 in a large clinic practicing traditional Chinese medicine in Hong Kong. They found that the men have begun to treat their impotency using Viagra instead of Chinese medicine, even though they now rely more than ever on traditional medicines for indigestion, arthritis, and gout.

The authors also credit Viagra with being partially responsible for a sharp decline in the harvest of Canadian harp seals in 1998. They say the number and price of seal penises sold to cure impotency fell sharply after Viagra went on the market in 1998 and never recovered. Increased demand for pelts and seal oil caused harvests to rise again in 2001, but the authors remain convinced that in the long-run Viagra will help protect seals. The authors also claim Viagra contributed to declining sales of reindeer antler velvet since 1997, although they admit it hasn’t done much for sea horses.

This is one more case where global market trends have large and sometimes unexpected effects on biodiversity. The authors readily admit we still need to protect endangered animals directly, and can’t rely on Viagra alone. Even so, one can only hope more older men replace animal parts with pills.

 

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Further reading

You can download free electronic copies of the articles from the following website: http://www.psy.unsw.edu.au/Users/BHippel/

If you have any difficulties finding or downloading the articles on that website or want to send comments or queries to the author, you can write Bill von Hippel at: w.vonhippel@unsw.edu.au

The full references for these articles are the following:

Von Hippel, W., F.A. von Hippel, N. Chan, and C. Cheng. 2005. Exploring the Use of Viagra in Place of Animal and Plant Potency Products in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Environmental Conservation 32 (3): 235-8.

Von Hippel, W. and F.A. von Hippel. 2004. Is Viagra a Conservation Too? Response to Hoover. Environmental Conservation 31(1):4-6.

Von, Hippel, W. and F.A. von Hippel. 2002. Sex, Drugs, and Animal Parts: Will Viagra Save Threatened Species? Environmental Conservation 29 (3): 277-81.