Tiger bones are seized in raids on health stores

Chinese medicines targeted in campaign to end poaching of rare species. Nicholas Schoon reports
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Police raided Chinese quarters of three cities yesterday, seizing hundreds of traditional medicines containing extracts from tigers, rhinoceroses and other endangered species.

More than 60 officers searched 12 Chinese chemists shops, health food stores and herbalists in London, Birmingham and Manchester accompanied by interpreters. The prize hauls from Operation Charm were entire tiger leg bones, said to be worth £28 an ounce.

Rising demand for the traditional medicinal products - plasters, pills, pastes and tonic wines - around the world is one of the main reasons for the rapid decline of tigers and rhinos. The growth in size and affluence of mainland China's population and expatriate Chinese communities dotted around the globe is fuelling the demand.

The trade in such products has been banned for years under the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), but enforcement has been lax - in the countries where the threatened animals live, where the medicines are made and where they are imported.

Last autumn an investigation by the monitoring organisation Traffic found products containing extracts from endangered species openly on sale in Chinatowns in several British cities.

Since then police forces and the Department of the Environment have been persuaded to act, with over a month's planning leading up to yesterday's raids. There were the first in Britain and the Government hopes they will set an example to other European nations importing the products.

The Independent accompanied Metropolitan Police officers and a Traffic investigator, Crawford Allan, to a Chinese chemist's in Soho, one of four premises visited in and around London's Chinatown. They spent three hours carefully searching through storerooms, cupboards and drawers brimful of herbs and medicines, removing and bagging up dozens of packets and specimens.

The store owners will be reported to the Crown Prosecution Service, which will decide whether to prosecute them under the 1985 legislation which implements the CITES treaty in Britain. If found guilty, the maximum penalties for selling an item containingingredients from a top endangered species such as the tiger or rhino are a £2,000 fine or two year prison sentence.

The officers found items including swiftlets' nests, lumps of congealed bear's blood resembling cricket balls, a plastic bag of seal penises and potency enhancers containing penis extracts from half a dozen species.

Chinese characters on numerous brightly coloured packets of pills, dried pastes and plasters claimed the contents included small quantities of rhinoceros horn, bear bile or tiger bone - which is believed to be particularly effective against rheumatism. The atmosphere suddenly sharpened when a cupboard yielded two large limb bones which, according to labels, were genuine tiger.

The store owner said afterwards: that he did not even know some of the items were there. He said many of them were purchased as part of a job lot of traditional remedies when the shop opened 10 years ago.

``It's very, very rare to sell these items - not many people are asking for them.''

Investigators believe some of the medicines purporting to contain tiger and rhino extracts may contain only minuscule traces - or none at all. But it is illegal to sell products even purporting to contain endangered species because this only encourages the trade.

There are only about 7,000 tigers left in the wild and only a few hundred Siberian tigers, the largest kind, which is in danger of extinction. Poaching for horns is also taking the five species of rhinoceros close to the brink. There are about 11,000 left in all with one species, the Javan, down to just 75 individuals.