Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) has an ancient and multifaceted heritage that goes back thousands of years and is linked to Taoist and Buddhist philosophies.

Practices such as acupuncture, massage, dietary plans, and breathing and meditation regimes are integral to TCM, and it also comprises over 800 recognised herbal and other medicinal treatments. Based on the holistic notion that humans are intimately linked to their surroundings, these treatments are traditionally mixed from natural components − plant, mineral and animal products.

In many instances, the cures and remedies are made from animal body parts and require that the animal be killed. A number of the species used to make these medicines are now listed as threatened or endangered and, in the case of the most high-profile animals, they have become major international conservation issues.

Rhinos, tigers, sharks, musk deer, bears, buffaloes and seahorses are all well-known examples of animals that are killed for such purposes. It is in this context that TCM has acquired its somewhat tarnished reputation, particularly as the efficacy of many of its treatments is in doubt or has been disproved.

In fact, some of the medicines are based on nothing more than spurious assumptions of a link between a human ailment or dysfunction and a behavioural characteristic of the animal. One of the more obscure tonics is a ‘wine’ that has tiger bones as its crucial ingredient. Apart from its novelty value for Westerners, this product is of interest because it may be linked to two other factors at play in southern Africa at the moment: the substantial increase in the number of rhinos being killed and the meteoric rise in the price of lion bones.

Because the tiger is seen as an agile, strong and energetic animal, tiger-bone wine is advocated as a stimulant for those suffering from fatigue or bone-related ailments, such as arthritis and rheumatism.

It is made by soaking tiger bones in rice wine for lengthy periods. In some instances, whole carcasses may be left in the wine for years at a time. The belief is that by absorbing nutrients from the bones, the wine will pass on the animal’s strength and vitality to the drinker.

Since the trade in tiger body parts was banned in the early 1990s, the production and availability of tiger wine has fallen.

While a small amount of wine comes illegally from farms that are allowed to breed tigers for circus performances, this is insufficient to meet the demand, which appears to be increasing. Commercial producers in China are looking for other options.

Lobbying to have the trading ban on tiger body parts lifted is one way to increase production; another way involves a possible link with South Africa. Over the past two years, the price of lion bones has leapt from less than US$10 per kilogram to more than US$300 per kilogram. Word in the murky underworld where these markets exist is that prices will continue to increase and that large syndicates are placing orders for more than 30 lionesses to be shot in cages at one time.

Traditionally, lionesses are not sought after as trophies, so why are people paying to shoot such large numbers of them? At present prices, the bones of one lioness are worth more than the average asking price to shoot one − US$4 000. It is plausible that merchants for tiger-bone wine in the Far East may have found a substitute for tiger bones.

And, what about the link to rhinos? Since the South African government again legalised trophy hunting for white rhinos, the number of animals killed has risen substantially. In 2007, 157 hunting permits were issued for rhino, with the vast majority going to Chinese and Vietnamese nationals. Rhino poaching levels have also increased dramatically in the past 18 months. Since the beginning of 2008, at least 48 carcasses have been found.

We also know that Far Eastern nationals are heavily involved in syndicate poaching.

If you are a syndicate trader in South Africa on business to buy up rhino horn, why not have a look around for other profitable commodities? Anyone for some lion bones?

I believe the authorities must investigate the possibility of a criminal element in the links between rhino trophy hunting in South Africa, the increase in rhino poaching, the rapid rise in the price of lion bones and the number of Far East-based animal-trading syndicates operating in southern Africa.