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Environmental Conservation 31 (1): 4–6 2004 Foundation for Environmental Conservation
Is Viagra a viable conservation tool? Response
to Hoover, 2003

In 1998, we (von Hippel & von Hippel 1998) suggested that the advent of Viagra might take someof the market pressure off a variety of threatened species used to treat erectile dysfunction (ED)in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). In 2002, we (von Hippel & von Hippel 2002) followed upthis initial suggestion by providing a more complete analysis of the species that might benefit ifTCM consumers switched to Viagra, and we also provided preliminary evidence that the harvestof a few species used in TCM may have already declined due to the availability of Viagra.
In response to this second publication, Hoover (2003) suggested that trade data do not support a reduction in demand for TCM animal products used to treat ED. Hoover cited a TRAFFICpublication (Lee et al. 1998) in which he and his co-authors argued that Asian consumers of TCMproducts are disinclined to switch to Western medicines. Because of this, TRAFFIC has taken theposition that rather than attempting to persuade consumers of TCM products to switch to Westernmedicines, efforts should instead be expended at persuading TCM consumers to switch from theconsumption of threatened species to those of no conservation concern (Lee et al. 1998). This isa laudable goal, but pursuit of this goal should not blind conservationists to the possibility thatconsumers might indeed switch from TCM products to Western medicines, at least for specificmaladies.
Of all medical problems for which Western treatments are currently available, ED may be the most likely to motivate a switch to a Western medicine. ED is widespread; an estimated152 million men worldwide suffered from ED in 1995, and this number is projected to grow to322 million men by 2025 due to ageing populations (Aytac et al. 1999). Additionally, it is a problemof great importance to quality of life (NIH Consensus Conference 1993). Unlike many otherWestern medicines that are not clearly better than traditional Chinese medicines at treating variousmaladies, Viagra has an immediate and obvious effect on the consumer and, in the course of afew minutes, can solve the problem in a non-painful manner. Thus, it is possible that Viagra maymake inroads with TCM consumers where other Western drugs and procedures have not. Thispossibility leads to the question: what can we infer from the available data? Hoover (2003) presented evidence that our optimistic conclusion that Viagra has led to decreased demand for animals used in TCM to treat ED (such as seahorses and seals) might be premature.
Hoover (2003) demonstrated an apparent rebound in sales of various animal products used in TCMto treat ED after the period covered by our analysis. However, the data presented by Hoover (2003)do not provide evidence that Asian consumers are not switching from TCM products to Viagra. AsHoover notes, many factors determine demand for animals and, therefore, national data reflectingthe harvesting of various animals do not provide clear evidence about the role of Viagra. Thus, itcould be the case that demand for TCM animal products for treating ED (such as seal genitalia)has diminished considerably, and yet demand for the same animal for other uses (such as pelts andoil) may have increased, leading to a resurgence in harvesting the animals despite their decliningdemand in TCM treatments for ED.
Consistent with this possibility, Hoover (2003) acknowledged that prices seem to remain low for seal genitalia, a product that has no apparent uses outside of TCM. In 1996, Canadian sealersprocessed 30 000–50 000 seal penises (Southey 1997). In 1998, coincident with Viagra’s entry tothe marketplace, prices fell from the previous range of C$ 70–100 per unit to C$ 15–20, and onlyabout 20 000 seal penises were sold to processors (Department of Fisheries and Oceans 2001).
This market virtually disappeared in 1999, and has remained absent (Department of Fisheries andOceans 2002). However, the overall seal harvest increased from 2000–2001 because of an improvedmarket for seal pelts and oil (Panel on Seal Management 2001). Because seals are harvested formany uses outside of TCM, the most revealing data from the trade statistics are the reduced pricesof genitalia in 1998 followed by the collapse of the genitalia market altogether in 1999, not the number of seals harvested. Similarly, sales of antler velvet may rebound because of increased TCMuses for other ailments, even if the proportion of demand for ED treatment falls.
Such a possibility might lead us to question whether it matters if demand for an animal part has declined if the animals themselves are still being harvested for other parts or other uses. We wouldargue, however, that although the rebound in legal seal harvests for pelts and oil (for example) maybe disappointing, the possibility that TCM consumers no longer rely on pinniped genitalia to treatED is still important. First, it is likely to reduce illegal poaching of seals and sea lions for theirgenitalia, as has often happened in the past (Malik et al. 1997), because a major source of demandwould have been reduced. Second, when fluctuating demand for seal pelts and oil again subsides,the lack of a market for seal genitalia will allow that reduction in demand for pelts and oil to betranslated into a reduction in seal harvesting. Although eliminating causes for animal harvests oneby one can be a slow process, often with no apparent yield, this practice has the potential to leadto a non-linear reduction in animal consumption that may be dramatic when the point is reachedat which the last major source of demand disappears. Such may be the case with Viagra and TCMtreatments for ED.
As should now be obvious, a great deal of the underlying disagreement between Hoover (2003) and us is conjectural, as both papers base their arguments about individual action on national dataconcerning animal harvests, which have multiple causes. These national data can never provideconvincing evidence that TCM consumers have (or haven’t) switched to Viagra, regardless ofwhether harvests increased dramatically or decreased to zero, as other issues aside from TCMconsumption could always be the root cause for such increases or decreases. Thus, the sort ofdebate that we are engaged in could continue in the absence of data that directly address thequestion of whether TCM consumers are indeed switching to Viagra.
Fortunately, Pfizer recently agreed to fund us to conduct a series of surveys in Hong Kong and India that will directly address the question of whether consumers of indigenous medicalproducts have switched to Viagra in order to treat ED. We know that sales of Viagra are robustin these and other countries where TCM or other traditional medicines form the basis of thehealthcare system. In its first three years on the market, Viagra was prescribed to more than tenmillion men worldwide with 30 million prescriptions issued, and it has been approved in over110 countries (Sadovsky et al. 2001), including most countries with major TCM markets such asChina (including Hong Kong), Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea,Taiwan and Thailand. What we do not know is whether this consumption of Viagra is in additionto or in replacement of the traditional products. Only with individual-level data will we be able toanswer what is fundamentally a psychological question concerning people’s willingness to abandona cultural tradition in favour of a foreign but efficacious remedy.
A large body of psychological research indicates that people are loath to change their beliefs, and, if necessary, will engage in mental gymnastics in order to maintain their preferred understanding ofthe world (see Lord et al. 1979; Ditto & Lopez 1993). But beliefs eventually accommodate reality,among scientists and lay citizens alike. For the time being, our hypothesis continues to be thatTCM consumers have been convinced by the efficacy of Viagra to switch from their traditionalpractices for this specific ailment.
Aytac, I.A., McKinlay, J.B. & Krane, R.J. (1999) The likely worldwide increase in erectile dysfunction between 1995 and 2025 and some possible policy consequences. BJU International 84: 50–56.
Department of Fisheries and Oceans (2001) Atlantic Seal Hunt 2001 Management Plan. Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
Department of Fisheries and Oceans (2002) Atlantic Seal Hunt 2002 Management Plan. Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
Ditto, P.H. & Lopez, D.A. (1993) Motivated skepticism: Use of differential decision criteria for preferred and nonpreferred conclusions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 63: 568–584.
Hoover, C. (2003) Response to ‘Sex, drugs and animal parts: will Viagra save threatened species?’ by von Hippel and von Hippel, Vol. 29(3): 277–281. Environmental Conservation 30(4): 317–318.
Lee, S., Hoover, C., Gaski, A. & Mills, J. (1998) A World Apart? Attitudes Toward Traditional Chinese Medicine and Endangered Species in Hong Kong and the United States. Washington, DC, USA: TRAFFIC East Asia,TRAFFIC North America, World Wildlife Fund.
Lord, C.G., Ross, L. & Lepper, M. (1979) Biased assimilation and attitude polarization: The effects of prior theories on subsequently considered evidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 37: 2098–2109.
Malik, S., Wilson, P.J., Smith, R.J., Lavigne, D.M. & White, B.N. (1997) Pinniped penises in trade: A molecular-genetic investigation. Conservation Biology 11: 1365–1374.
NIH Consensus Conference (1993) Impotence. NIH Consensus Development Panel on impotence. Journal of the American Medical Association 270: 83–90.
Panel on Seal Management (2001) Report of the eminent panel on seal management. Communication Branch, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Ottawa, Canada.
Sadovsky, R., Miller, T., Moskowitz, M. & Hackett, G. (2001) Three-year update of sildenafil citrate (VIAGRA) efficacy and safety. International Journal of Clinical Practice 55: 115–128.
Southey, C. (1997) The Newfoundland commercial seal hunt: an economic analysis of costs and benefits.
Available from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Canada.
von Hippel, F.A. & von Hippel, W. (1998) Solution to a conservation problem? Science 281: 1805.
von Hippel, F.A. & von Hippel, W. (2002) Sex, drugs, and animal parts: will Viagra save threatened species?
Environmental Conservation 29: 277–281.
W I L L I A M V O N H I P P E L 1 * A N D F R A N K A . V O N H I P P E L 2
1School of Psychology
University of New South Wales
Sydney 2052
, Australia
2Department of Biological Sciences
University of Alaska Anchorage
3211 Providence Drive
, AK 99508-4614, USA
* Correspondence: Dr William von Hippel Tel: +61 2 9385 1643 Fax: +61 2 9385 1643 e-mail:


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