Traditional medicine



Street vendors, selling traditional medicine, Kathmandu, Nepal. Some of the ingredients are displayed, such as heads of hornbills and ibises, scorpions, and dried lizards. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Note. The contents on this page, regarding plants and fungi, has been transferred to the page Plants: Plants in folklore and poetry. The contents re. animals will gradually be transferred to other pages.




Blattidae Cockroaches
Distribution: Almost worldwide.
Medicinal usage: In traditional Chinese medicine, cockroaches are used against a number of ailments, such as abdominal problems, stroke, and bone fractions, and also as an anti-ageing agent. An ethnic minority in the Yunnan Province used cockroaches to treat open wounds. New research has shown that these animals contain at least nine different antibacterial substances, and one substance is able to kill AIDS virus.
Other usage: For hundreds of years, cockroaches have been utilized as food in northern China. A cream, containing intestines of cockroaches and other ingredients, is applied by Chinese women to their skin to keep it young.
Note: In China, a booming industry is producing skin cream and medicine from millions of cockroaches, kept in captivity.



Many species of cockroach have adapted to a life in cities, where they are often an immense nuisance. - Bontoc, Luzon, Philippines Mange kakkerlak-arter har tilpasset sig til at leve i byer, hvor de ofte er en voldsom plage. - Bontoc, Luzon, Filippinerne
Cockroach in a bathroom, Bontoc, Luzon, Philippines. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)






Cervidae Deer
Distribution: Various deer species are distributed in Eurasia, north-western Africa, and the Americas. Red deer (Cervus elaphus) has been introduced to New Zealand.
Medicinal usage: In traditional Chinese medicine, deer antlers in velvet are utilized for various ailments, such as joint and bone problems, and calcium deficiency, and also as a growth tonic for children, as a remedy against old age, and as an aphrodisiac. – Deer penis is reported to have important therapeutic properties. It is sliced into small pieces, roasted, and dried in the sun. In former days, in Taiwan, women were reported to consume deer penis during pregnancy, as they believed it would make the mother and child stronger. The Ancient Mayans were also known to roast deer penis, and Greek physician Hippocrates of Kos (c. 460-370 B.C.) recommended it as an aphrodisiac.
Other usage: In their entire area of distribution, deer are hunted for their delicious meat, and the antlers are valued as trophies. Deer penis is eaten as a delicacy in certain Chinese restaurants.
Notes: In several countries, deer are kept in captivity for production of velvet antler, the largest suppliers being New Zealand with 450-500 tons annually, mostly from red deer (Cervus elaphus), and China with about 400 tons annually, mostly from sika deer (Cervus nippon).

Many deer species and subspecies are threatened due to excessive hunting, combined with habitat loss.



Indien 1994
Sambar deer (Cervus unicolor), grazing on succulent water plants in a lake, Ranthambhor National Park, Rajasthan, India. A grey heron (Ardea cinerea) is using its back as a lookout post. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Vorsø 1988-99
Roe buck (Capreolus capreolus), crossing a pond in Nature Reserve Vorsø, Horsens Fjord, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Californien 2011a
Female and immature mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus), Point Reyes National Seashore, California. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Nordindien 1982
Spotted deer stag (Axis axis) drinking at a waterhole, together with a peafowl (Pavo cristatus), Sariska National Park, Rajasthan, India. A rufous treepie (Dendrocitta vagabunda) is sitting on its back. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Deer antlers in velvet for sale, Kowloon, Hong Kong. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Poster in Lhasa, Tibet, announcing traditional Chinese medicine for sale: deer antlers, and gall bladders of bears. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)






Chilopoda Centipedes
Distribution: Almost worldwide.
Medicinal usage: In traditional Chinese medicine, centipedes are called ’heavenly dragons’, and medicine made from them is used for various ailments, including tetanus, seizures, headache, cancer, and snakebite. It is also employed to treat wounds and serious skin problems. This medicine, however, is very poisonous and should be used with caution.



Centipede, c. 20 cm long, in a limestone cave, Niah National Park, Sarawak, Borneo, Malaysia. Skolopender, ca. 20 cm lang, i en kalkstenshule, Niah National Park, Sarawak, Borneo, Malaysia
This centipede, c. 20 cm long, was found in a limestone cave in Niah National Park, Sarawak, Borneo. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)






Cicadidae Cicadas
Distribution: Almost worldwide.
Medicinal usage: In Chinese traditional medicine, cicada moults are used for treatment of a number of ailments, including fever, swollen eyes, sore throat, measles, spasms, tetanus, itching caused by rubella, and also to remove nebula.



Taiwan 2009
Cicada, clinging to a tree trunk, Sun-Moon Lake, Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Taiwan 2010
Cocoon, or moult, of a cicada, still clinging to the tree, Chingshuian Recreation Area, Taiwan. These moults are widely used in Chinese folk medicine. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)






Gekko gecko Tokay gecko
Family: Gekkonidae.
Distribution: Indian Subcontinent, Southeast Asia, Philippines, Indonesia, Melanesia.
Medicinal usage: In Chinese medicine, tokay geckos are used for various ailments and diseases, including stroke, paralysis, arthritis, impotence, premature ejaculation, frequent urination, nocturnal urination, and emaciation. New research has shown that it has a positive effect on malignant tumours, especially in the digestive system.
Notes: Formerly, in China, a number of superstitions were related to the tokay gecko. It was believed that its urine was deadly poisonous. If a pregnant woman consumed it, she was certain to deliver a boy. As tokay geckos mate for a very long time, it was believed that consuming them would cure impotency.

Today, the species is threatened due to over-collection and habitat loss. However, in the Florida Keys, United States, where it has been introduced, it has become invasive.



Filippinerne 1984
Tokay gecko on a house wall, Mindoro, Philippines. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Tokay geckos, conserved in spirits, displayed for sale in a shop in Wuzhou, Guangxi Zhuang, China. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)






Moschidae Musk deer
Distribution: Central Asia, Siberia, China, Himalaya.
Medicinal usage: Musk, produced from the musk gland of the male musk deer, has been utilized in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine for more than 5,000 years. It is estimated that musk is currently being used in as many as 400 Chinese and Korean traditional remedies, employed in treatment of disorders of the nervous system, blood circulation, heart, and lungs. The musk is also reported to possess anti-inflammatory, antihistaminic, stimulating, and sedative properties. In India, it has been used as an aphrodisiac for thousands of years.
Other usage: The musk has been widely used in the perfume industry for thousands of years.
Notes: In 747, armies of the Chinese Tang Dynasty (618-907) and the First Tibetan Empire, ruled by Songtsan Gampo (c. 604-650), clashed on the banks of the famous Oxus River – now called Amu Darya – in what is today the Wakhan Corridor of north-eastern Afghanistan. The outcome of this battle would decide, which empire was in control of the route, leading through the Kingdom of Bolor, and over the Darkot Pass (4703 m) into the Indus Valley – an important branch on the ancient trading route of Central Asia, the Silk Road. Who controlled this pass, controlled the export of musk glands from the north-western part of the Indian Subcontinent – a commodity, which was worth 30 times its weight in silver. Incidentally, the Chinese army won the battle.

Several musk deer species are threatened due to excessive hunting of the males. According to TRAFFIC, which is monitoring international wildlife trade, and WWF (Worldwide Fund for Nature), 17,000-20,000 musk deer males are killed annually, in Russia alone, to supply the illegal trade in glands. (Source: National Geographic News, 2004)



This male Himalayan musk deer (Moschus chrysogaster) is enjoying his meal of old-man’s-beard lichens (Usnea), which have fallen to the forest floor. The picture was taken in the Khumbu area, eastern Nepal, where this species is fairly common and rather confiding, as the local Sherpas, who are Buddhists, do not harm any wild animals. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)






Panthera tigris Tiger
Family: Cats (Felidae).
Distribution: Tropical Asia, China, Russia (Ussuriland).
Medicinal usage: For more than a thousand years, tiger parts have been utilized in traditional Chinese medicine; the claws as a sedative for insomnia; the teeth for fever; the fat for leprosy and rheumatism; the nose skin for wounds; the bones for rheumatism and arthritis, dysentery, headache, and stiffness or paralysis of lower back and legs; the eyeballs for epilepsy and malaria; the tail for skin diseases; the bile for meningitis in children; the whiskers for tooth ache; the brain for laziness and pimples; the penis for usage in love potions, and as an aphrodisiac; the faeces for boils and haemorrhoids, and to cure alcoholism.

Western medical experts tend to discount all claims of any curative power in tiger bone, and it is well known that aspirin contains similar properties and produces many of the same results as tiger prescriptions in patients. Despite this, in Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam, and in Chinatowns across Europe and North America, Chinese medical shops do a steady trade in ‘tiger wine’, tiger powder, tiger balm, and tiger pills. Many Asian communities believe that tiger bone, taken as powder or in ’tiger wine’, soothes rheumatic pain and cures ulcers, malaria, and burns. (Source:

Notes: The tiger is critically endangered due to excessive trophy hunting in the 1900s, and widespread poaching today, combined with habitat loss. The total world population may be less than 5,000. According to TRAFFIC, which is monitoring international wildlife trade, a minimum of 1,590 tigers were seized by officials between January 2000 and April 2014, feeding the illegal wildlife trade. (Source: WWF – Worldwide Fund for Nature, 2016)



Tigress, Kanha National Park, Madhya Pradesh, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



This young tiger is well camouflaged among golden grass, Ranthambhor National Park, Rajasthan, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)






Rhinocerotidae Rhinos
Distribution: East & South Africa, India, Southeast Asia, Indonesia.
Medicinal usage: Rhino parts have been used as ingredients in traditional Asian medicine for at least 2000 years. Virtually every part of the animal is used: the horn for reducing fever and spasms; the skin for skin diseases; the penis as an aphrodisiac; the bones to treat bone disorders; the blood “as a tonic for women who are suffering from menstrual problems.” – In China, powdered horn is regarded as an aphrodisiac. However, chemical analyses have not revealed any active ingredients to suggest that the remedy could be effective in this respect. (Source: J. Still, 2003: Use of animal products in traditional Chinese medicine. In: Complementary Therapies in Medicine). In fact, western medical experts tend to discount all claims of any curative power in rhino horn. It is well known that aspirin contains similar properties and produces many of the same results as rhino prescriptions in patients.
Other usage: Formerly, rhino horn was used for adorning dagger sheaths in Yemen – a practice which may still take place.
Notes: Asian rhino horns are more highly prized than African rhino horns, as consumers believe that their smaller size means that they are more concentrated, and therefore more potent.

All five species of rhino are critically endangered due to widespread poaching, in Asia also due to habitat loss.



Greater one-horned rhino (Rhinoceros unicornis), Kaziranga National Park, Assam, India Indisk pansernæsehorn (Rhinoceros unicornis), Kaziranga Nationalpark, Assam, Indien
Greater one-horned rhino (Rhinoceros unicornis), Kaziranga National Park, Assam, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Tanzania 1989
This bull black rhino (Diceros bicornis) is sniffing a tuft of grass, into which a female has urinated, baring its lips in a posture, called flehmen. The inhaled air passes a special sensing organ, which is able to detect whether the female is in heat. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)






Ursidae Bears
Distribution: Europe, Asia, North and South America, Arctic.
Medicinal usage: Bear gall bladders are much utilized in Chinese traditional medicine for treatment of skin problems and severe cases of red and swollen eyes, and also for clearing the eyesight, removing toxins and parasites from the body, alleviating spasms, increasing release of bile, improving absorption of vitamin D and calcium, and reducing fever, swellings, and pain.
Other usage: Bear paw soup is considered a valuable delicacy among many Asian peoples, including Chinese, Vietnamese, and Cambodians, supposedly giving the consumer the power and virility of a bear. One bowl of bear paw soup may cost as much as 1000 US$. Bear meat is also regarded as a delicacy in these societies.
Notes: Due to illegal hunting, bears have disappeared, or become very rare, in many areas, including Europe, Southeast Asia, Korea, China, and Taiwan. Many bears are kept in captivity to supply the various markets. In South Korea, for instance, only around ten Asian black bears, or moon bears (Ursus thibetanus), live in the wild, whereas c. 1600 are kept in captivity, often under horrible conditions. These captive bears are often killed in the most cruel and horrendous ways, and that this practice is illegal does not seem to deter consumers.

As numbers dwindled in other areas, the attention of poachers, in the 1990s, shifted to western North America, which houses a large number of brown bears (Ursus arctos) and American black bears (U. americanus). Since then, numerous bears have been illegally collected here, intended for Asian societies in American cities, to be served as bear paw soup, or for production of traditional medicine.

Today, five of the eight bear species are endangered.



Bear gall bladders are much utilized in Chinese traditional medicine. This picture shows Asian black bear, or moon bear (Ursus thibetanus), photographed in Chengdu Zoo, Sichuan Province, China. This species is described on the page Culture: Folk art of Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Female American black bear (Ursus americanus) with a cub, Sequoia National Park, Sierra Nevada, California. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



This young sun bear (Helarctos malayanus) was confiscated from poachers and is now kept in captivity, until it is old enough to be released in nature. – Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, Sabah, Borneo. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Poster in Lhasa, Tibet, announcing traditional Chinese medicine for sale: bear gall bladders and deer antlers. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




(Uploaded January 2016)


(Latest update July 2020)