Endangered species may get a boost from Viagra|Richard_F|richard@cfz.org.uk|10/19/05 at 22:02:39|richard_f|xx|0||Endangered species may get a boost from Viagra

Report suggests Asian men may use blue pills over traditional wildlife-based remedies

Anchorage Daily News

Published: October 12, 2005
Last Modified: October 12, 2005 at 07:14 AM

Asian men who traditionally tried to treat their impotence with sliced reindeer antlers as well as bits of exotic and threatened animals may be switching to Viagra, according to a study co-authored by a University of Alaska Anchorage biologist.

The report, which has drawn international attention, found that a group of Hong Kong men gave up traditional Chinese remedies like seal penises, sea horses and green turtle eggs as a cure for erectile dysfunction in favor of more dramatic and verifiable results produced by the little blue pills, said associate professor Frank von Hippel.

In other words, Viagra may help save a few endangered critters from extinction, as well as boost the flagging sex lives of middle-aged men.

A possible Alaska consequence cited by the scientists is the recent plunge in the price of reindeer antlers, a legal animal product once in high demand as one traditional treatment for male sexual problems.

"It's complicated," von Hippel said. "It's hard to tease what part of the decline in their trade is due to Viagra and due to other factors."

Viagra won't have an impact on a different Alaska trade -- the illegal trafficking in bear gall bladders, von Hippel said. Bear parts are thought to increase sexual vigor by some Asian men but aren't considered a traditional remedy specifically for erectile dysfunction, he said.

The study furthers a line of research that von Hippel and his brother, William, a social psychologist at University of New South Wales in Australia, have pursued since the 1998 introduction of Viagra.

Von Hippel said he was taken aback by the most recent media uproar -- which broke Monday in Australia, spread to Europe overnight and was exciting U.S. journalists on Tuesday.

By that afternoon, the two East High School graduates had fielded about 15 interviews from around the world.

"It's actually the same thing that happened the last two times we wrote about this," von Hippel said. "A lot of the research I do is a lot more important than this, but I guess it has the appeal to the public because it has to do with sex and drugs."

Von Hippel, a conservation biologist, mostly studies the role of three-spine sticklebacks as ecological indicators. William von Hippel specializes in aging and prejudice.

"It has been perplexing," said Frank von Hippel, in a telephone interview from his office on the UAA campus.

The von Hippels decided to investigate whether Viagra's popularity cut the demand for illegal animal parts while they were taking a hike near Campbell Airstrip. After publishing articles in the journals Nature and Environmental Conservation, they obtained a $46,000 grant for further work from Viagra producer Pfizer Inc.

The study, published by Environmental Conservation, focused on 256 Chinese men seeking traditional treatment for a range of maladies at a large Hong Kong clinic. Co-author Norman Chan, a native Cantonese speaker and psychology graduate student at the University of New South Wales, interviewed the men in January 2004.

Of more than 30 men who had tried traditional Chinese remedies for impotence, at least eight had switched to Viagra. Of 16 men who were using Viagra, none had switched to traditional animal cures.

But most of the men continued to prefer traditional Chinese cures for arthritis, indigestion and gout -- and used western medicine at a much lower rate.

That makes sense, von Hippel said, because many Chinese men remain deeply suspicious of western medicine and wouldn't make the cross-cultural switch unless they had a very good reason.

And that would be penile dysfunction.

Traditional Chinese medicine encompasses myriad animal and plant cures, some proven to be effective and some not, von Hippel said. No one has found any evidence that antlers, penises or other animal parts cure impotence. Those skeptical of traditional cures contend they could work by the power of suggestion, von Hippel said.

"It's a unique kind of ailment in that the problem is incredibly important to the quality of life to men, and the new western remedies work right away and it's obvious that it works," von Hippel said.

The authors next argued that switching to Viagra and other modern medicines for impotence has begun to reduce the number of threatened and endangered animals killed in the quest for remedies.

Besides antlers, traditional cures often used seal and sea lion penises -- taken legally from Canadian harp and hooded seals and poached from species off the Galapagos Islands and southern Africa. Other species included are sea horses, sea cucumbers and green sea turtles.

Conservationists have been skeptical that Viagra will really make a difference. A spokesman for the World Wildlife Fund's Traffic program told Nature that endangered species get used for many ailments besides impotence. "Viagra really clouds the discussion of species conservation," said Gus Sant.

Whether Viagra has affected legal sale of Alaska reindeer antlers is also difficult to sort out, said Rose Fosdik, with the Kawerak Reindeer Herders Association in Nome. Antlers are also used as traditional cures for several conditions.

The value of Alaska reindeer byproducts, including antlers, dropped from about $692,000 in 1997 to $195,000 in 1998, the year Viagra was introduced. The sales have remained about the same ever since, according to Alaska Agricultural Statistics Service.

Prices have been half of the $40 to $45 per pound that antlers used to bring, several herders said.

"I think it has something to do with Viagra," said a herder with the reindeer operation on Nunivak Island.