People in southern China’s Ruyuan Yao Autonomous County are collecting the bark of an endangered tree to make homemade remedies for cancer, risking the lives of people and plant alike in the process, Guangzhou Daily reported Friday.
Taxus chinensis, also known as the Chinese yew, does indeed contain a cancer-fighting compound, contributing to the dramatic decline of the species. There are half as many Chinese yews today as there were in the 1990s, according to a 2013 report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The nationally protected tree is found in mountainous parts of southern China’s Guangdong province, as well as in 11 other provinces and regions spanning the country.
“Many people think taking bark from a tree is no big deal, but when you strip the bark, it is difficult for the tree to survive,” an employee from the local forestry protection station told Guangzhou Daily. “These trees are precious — taking their bark is classified as a crime, and those who do this will be held legally responsible.”
However, a lack of proper knowledge of the plant’s medicinal properties has led to an increasing number of people using it for treatment. Much of this has to do with the fact that researchers discovered that a compound in Chinese yews called paclitaxel kills cancer cells and can be used to treat breast and ovarian cancers. In fact, the World Health Organization includes the compound in its “Model List of Essential Medicines,” an authoritative record of the world’s most important health treatments.
In China, illegally harvested Chinese yew bark is either soaked in water or alcohol to prepare a medicinal drink, and its small, spiny leaves are used to make tea — all in the hope that the recipient will benefit from the tree’s cancer-fighting properties. However, paclitaxel is not soluble in water or alcohol, and consuming products derived from the Chinese yew without proper processing is extremely dangerous and can inhibit the production of blood cells, causing potentially life-threatening health complications, the newspaper reported.
It was because of the diminishing yew populations and the health risks of consuming their bark that China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission banned the use of Chinese yew products in foods and medicinal ingredients in 2006.
Even though paclitaxel is now produced synthetically and cannot be easily obtained from the plants by laypeople, Chinese yew trees in northern Guangdong are still under threat from these undispelled myths, which have also led to the plants fetching high prices on the black market.
China has long tussled with the impact of products from endangered wild animals, such as tiger bones and pangolin scales, used in traditional medicines. Some lawmakers and officials have continued to defend the use of these products, arguing that while more sustainable substitutes may protect the country’s endangered flora and fauna, rare ingredients are more effective — and therefore essential to preserving the tradition of Chinese medicine.
Editor: Bibek Bhandari.
This story has been updated to clarify the views of some Chinese lawmakers and officials.
(Header image: Two officials wrap their arms around a ‘Taxus chinensis’ in a forest in Cengong County, Guizhou province, Oct. 26, 2014. Hu Yan/VCG)