People have long relied on plants, animals, and minerals for medicine, and many folks in both rural and urban locations around the world still rely on these rather than on modern pharmaceuticals. Traditional medicines often provide a more accessible form of care for much of the world’s human population because modern drugs cost far more money and aren’t always available. Their use may also reflect socioeconomic inequality. For example, use of traditional plant and animal remedies is more widespread among poorer sectors of Brazilian society because social inequality leads to access to good private healthcare for wealthy citizens and access much worse public healthcare for poorer citizens (Alves et al 2007).
Most research focuses on plants, but recently some scientists have begun to study the medical role of animals as well. They have begun documenting animal species used, mode of preparation for treatments, and ailments treated. Reptiles figure heavily in many studies across distant countries: one review reported at least 165 reptile species used in folk medicine around the world, but the true number is probably much larger (Alves et. al. 2008). On most continents we can find examples of reptile use. Nigerians collect crocodiles for skins, meat, and body parts to use in traditional medicine (Ita 1994). Rattlesnakes have declined in Mexico due to demand for live snakes, skin, and body parts (Alves et. al. 2008). A 19th century explorer in Brazil reported that Amerindians applied caiman fat to remedy rheumatism, a treatment still in use today (Alves and Alves 2011). More than 3,000 years ago, during the Shang dynasty in China, turtle shells provided material for oracles to interpret. Today turtles are highly valued for traditional medicine in China and elsewhere because they live extraordinarily long lives, a quality that people seek to obtain (Kiester and Olson 2011).
True, many animal remedies are based on “natural modeling”, whereby the users hope that consumption of a certain animal or its parts will confer characteristics of that animal upon the human who consumes it:
In many cases, the therapeutic use of animal remedies appears to be based on morphological or behavioral peculiarities of the animal in question. In México, for example, a tea made from the toasted and ground penis of the coatimundi (Nasua narica or N. nasua) is considered the most potent remedy for male impotence [8,40]. Descola  has recorded a similar remedy among the Achuar Jivaro of the Ecuadorian Amazon and provides an enlightening account of its probable origin: “The penis of the coati rejoices in a long fine bone that keeps it constantly rigid. This anatomical peculiarity has made a forceful impression upon the imagination of the Indians, and the men make the most of it, grating the bone into a decoction of green tobacco to make a love philtre. Quaffed at the right moment, it is reputed to prevent any flagging of the male member.” In Brazil, reptiles that move slowly (”lerdos“) are used to calm people (”lerdar“). For example, the products produced from U. superciliosus (dust and water) are used to “amansar“ (to calm an aggressive person or ease the anger of someone betrayed by their wife or husband) . There is an association between the biological characteristics of a lizard and the effects its use is expected to generate . This observation is similar to that of Radbill  who pointed out that in homeopathic or imitative magic, it is assumed that certain qualities attributed to animals can be transferred to humans, and that this transfer can occur by inhalation, ingestion or application of the body parts of those animals.
(Alves and Alves 2011).
Sometimes consumption of certain animal products has been empirically shown to effectively remedy the ailment for which it is intended. Few labs have tested the efficacy of traditional animal remedies, but even so some have proved useful for treating disease within the context of modern medicine. Modern drugs often come about as a result of bioprospecting, the search for useful chemicals in living creatures, and some scientists have pointed out that traditional medicines provide shortcuts for bioprospecting because the plants and animals used do have chemical properties that can serve as the basis for pharmaceutical development (Alves and Rosa 2007).
Sadly, western medicine is replacing traditional medicine in many cases, contributing to the decline of knowledge about medicinal species. Loss of biodiversity has also exacerbated this loss of knowledge. Ecological degradation, especially deforestation, has impacted the practice of traditional medicine as species have become scarce or extinct. Now, many forms of traditional medicine require long travel for plant or animal acquisition, and preparations are affected too with an emphasis on preparations that can be stored for longer periods of time without spoiling or losing potency (Anyinam 1995). Like the plants and animals they use, those who practice traditional medicine face rapid extinction. Knowledge of medicinal properties has quickly become scarce. Unfortunately, much of that knowledge has not even been written down, as it comes mostly from societies with an oral rather than written tradition (Anyinam 1995).
Harvest of animals for medical purposes certainly puts some pressure on ecosystems, but until recently people generally harvested animals in small enough quantities for local use that populations did not face severe exploitation. However, these natural remedies have seen a rise in demand, leading to a commodification that often increases the level of harvest to damaging levels. Singapore, Hong Kong, Canada, the United States, Switzerland, and Germany now import large quantities of herbal remedies (Anyinam 1995). Using “natural substances” rather than pharmaceuticals has become trendy in these and other industrialized areas, encouraging unsustainable levels of exploitation of medicinal species.
Human reliance on natural resources creates a vested interest in the long-term protection of those resources. If people want a species to stick around so that they can continue using it, then they may be more motivated to combat certain ecosystem pressures, like habitat degradation or illegal poaching by outsiders. Unfortunately, many conservationists currently view local communities as impediments to conservation rather than as potential partners in restoring some kind equilibrium of sustainable use.
If the need for conservation is to be accepted by people who make their livelihoods from wildlife or use wildlife as food and/or medicine, then care should be taken to avoid approaches with little or no social resonance i.e., that may be perceived as ideological or culturally imperialistic.
(Alves and Santana 2008)
Top-down efforts to save species by prohibiting human use come off as “imperialistic” if there is no consultation with people who use the species locally. Communities may also ignore said prohibition because they have traditionally used local species and need to continue using them for their own survival, rendering such laws unproductive as conservation efforts. Instead, communities should be complicit in their region’s conservation programs. For that to happen, conservation may need a paradigm shift: instead of aspiring to completely erase human impact on ecosystems, perhaps we should recognize humans as a part of those ecosystems, and focus instead on reducing exploitation to levels that the ecosystem can handle. People are probably more inclined to cooperative with laws if those laws are more in line with their needs.
There have been some moderate success stories of community-level conservation despite the hurdles that it faces. One example involves the freshwater turtle Podocnemis expansa in the Brazilian Amazon. The turtle has a wide home range but faces endangerment in much of it, probably at least partially because humans exploit them for food and medicine. Now people have established captive breeding programs in parts of Amazonia to supply commercial purposes, thus reducing some of the pressure on wild individuals. According to the authors of a study on these efforts to use P. expansa more sustainably, “Community-based efforts such as these are limited by scarce funding, consistent and effective involvement of stakeholders, and political infighting. However, this is a strategy that has the most potential to redirect human behavior from unrestrained exploitation to sustainable use of a resource.” (Alves and Santana 2008)
When we consider conservation, we sometimes fail to remember that traditional knowledge of plants and animals forms an important part of the global cultural and scientific heritage. The world at large therefore has an interest in ensuring that knowledge does not go extinct. People in close contact with their natural resources, such as traditional healers, hunters, and even snake charmers necessarily learn about those resources in a way that outsiders probably will not, or at least not without devoting extensive time and effort. Science could gain much by paying attention to this local expertise. If we would just listen and learn, traditional knowledge could contribute to modern medicine, natural history, ecology, and other areas pertinent to species/ecosystem conservation.
Alves, R. and H. Alves. 2011. The faunal drugstore, animal based remedies used in traditional medicines in Latin America. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 7: 1-43.
Alves, R. and I. Rosa. 2007. Biodiversity, traditional medicine, and public health: where do they meet? Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 3:14.
Alves, R, I. Rosa, and G. Santana. 2007. The role of animal derived remedies as complementary medicine in Brazil. BioScience 57: 949-955.
Alves, R. and G. Santana. 2008. Use and commercialization of Podocnemis expansa for medicinal purposes in two communities in North of Brazil. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 4:3.
Alves, R, W. Vieira, and G. Santana. 2008. Reptiles used in traditional folk medicine: conservation implications. Biodiversity and Conservation 17: 2037-2049.
Ita E. O. 1994. Aquatic plants and wetland wildlife resources of Nigeria. CIFA Occasional Paper, 21. FAO, Rome, p 52.
Kiester, A. R. and D. H. Olson. 2011. Prime time for turtle conservation. Herpetological Review 42(2): 198-204.