The global threat from ... tiger balm?

When 40 police raided Manchester's Chinatown it wasn't heroin they were looking for - it was cough mixture. Jamie Kenny reports
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Manchester Chinatown rises late. So when 40 uniformed and plainclothes police piled out of white Marias and trotted into Chinatown's central square soon after midday on 7 February, only a few elderly residents of the nearby Tung Sing sheltered housing project were there to witness it. What are the chai lo up to? Who knows? The police weren't talking. Nobody was. And when the vans pulled away it seemed as though Chinatown had banished some mental irritant, leaving life to re-settle comfortably into its usual pattern.

This was the Manchester end of Operation Charm, a nationally co-ordinated crackdown on the sale of products made from endangered species. Acting on intelligence received from Traffic International, the World Wide Fund For Nature's specialist in the transport and sale of such material, 14 premises in Manchester, London and Birmingham were raidedlast September. Investigators visited 28 Chinese medicine shops, and claimed to have purchased suspect material from 14 premises.

If the police were to appear en masse in any other ethnic community, accusations of racism would quickly follow. But Chinatown responded by opening for business as usual. A relieved-looking Assistant Chief Constable Malcolm George, of Greater Manchester Police, refused to name the organisations that had been raided. "This was a very sensitive affair," he said, "and I must stress that we have received every co-operation from the companies involved in the raid."

The Oriental Health Centre was one of them. "We had just opened when four police walked in with an interpreter," says the manager, Rachel Ho. "They showed us a search warrant and asked if we had anything made from tiger bone, bear bile or rhino horn."

"We had about 200 grammes of a paste made from tiger bone," she continues. "We stocked up on it when we started the business eight years ago. But very few people have asked for it over the years. We never restocked after we bought the first lot. We didn't need to."

After a two-hour search, police also confiscated phials of hao yan pien, a cough medicine purporting to contain bear bile. Under the Convention for the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), it is illegal to sell remedies that claim to contain parts of endangered species, even if the claim is wrong. Perhaps this is why the police decided to take five boxes of tiger balm, a well-known headache remedy whose main contents are mint and vaseline and whose name originates from that of its Singaporean inventor, "Tiger" Aw. It has a picture of a tiger on the jar.

The Oriental Health Centre is a small, family-owned business, typical of the 200 or so listed practitioners of Chinese medicine in Britain. These range from large clinics offering acupuncture, moxibustion, herbal cures and massage, to individuals operating out of their front rooms. There are four Traditional Chinese Medicine clinics in central Manchester. TCM is normal medical practice in China. It is also widespread in Hong Kong.

Although the Chinese community forms the bedrock clientele of UK-based centres, many clinics have more non-Chinese clients. Some are attracted by New Age notions about the superiority of the spiritual east, but most are ordinary people with ailments conventional medicine cannot alleviate. Word of mouth generally brings in these customers: a mother whose child is suffering from severe eczema asks in desperation at her local takeaway for the address of a local clinic; a wife whose husband is crippled by arthritis sees an article reporting amazing Chinese cures in the local paper.

None of the everyday cures administered by the Oriental Health Centre involves the use of endangered species. Indeed, most of the proscribed substances are far too expensive for UK-based customers. Only an esoteric few use the likes of Tiger bone - which has a following among Chinese martial artists as a cure for rheumatism - or "tiger and dragon bone wine", a favoured restorative of the elderly, which may once have contained parts of rare animals but no longer does.

The pharmaceutical sector has traditionally been the target of animal welfare activists. Last November, the magazine Ethical Consumer gave a comprehensive rundown of the activities of pharmaceutical multinationals. In 1991, Ciba-Geigy shipped 405,000 tonnes of the banned pesticide DDT to Tanzanian farmers "by mistake", while Rhone Poulenc was reported to have promoted the use of lindane, a pesticide campaigners describe as hazardous. The report went on to provide a depressing list of what the producers of our favourite household remedies prefer to keep quiet: animal testing and environmental pollution.

So why pick on the corner shop, and not the pharmaceutical conglomerates that have caused such widespread degradation of natural habitats? Bobbie Jo Kelso of Traffic International, says: "There are between 5,000 and 7,400 tigers left in the world. Their rate of destruction is such that if their use in medicinal products isn't stopped, the animals will become extinct while their habitats are still perfectly viable."

Some of the quantities of illegal materials involved are huge. The Environmental Investigation Agency managed secretly to film mainland officials offering a tonne of processed rhino horn for sale in 1992. The International Fund for Animal Welfare investigating bear farming in Zhuhai, Guandong province obtained photographs of caged Asian black bears awaiting their monthly "milking". This involves the insertion of a tube into the gall bladder to produce a "milk" which is sold, mainly in Taiwan, for $1,700 (£1,075) per small tube. South African police have said that at least one Taiwanese national has been involved in the smuggling of every case of rhino horn they have uncovered since 1989. Chinese-speaking East Asia is at the centre of a trade estimated by Traffic International to be worth up to $10bn a year.

Against this, the "several hundred" items recovered by Operation Charm seem paltry. "This is not just an Asian issue," says Ms Kelso. "People who are party to the traffic in endangered species are breaking the law. We do realise that this is a culturally sensitive issue, but as a party to CITES, the authorities here have responsibilities."

Ms Kelso says Traffic International is actively campaigning in the Far East, through offices in Taipei, Hong Kong and South Korea. "Asian countries are cracking down too," she says, citing recent raids on pharmacies in Taipei and Hong Kong. Traffic International also runs educational programmes for practitioners of traditional Chinese medicines to highlight alternatives to products derived from endangered species.

None the less, it is difficult to escape the feeling that Operation Charm is tackling a problem where it is most accessible rather than where it is most serious. Ms Ho says that since opening for business, the Oriental Health Centre has received only "two or three requests a year" for tiger bone products. "We think that endangered species should be preserved," she says. "But we have not bought any products for eight years. Isn't the best way to take action to target the exporters?"

Rachel Ho and the `Oriental Health Centre' are pseudonyms.

The writer is English language editor of `SiYu Chinese Times'.