Viagra sales may increase endangered species' chance for survival

Posted: Thursday, December 26, 2002

ANCHORAGE - Viagra appears to be cutting into the market for endangered animals harvested illegally and sold on the black market as cures for impotence, according to a study by a University of Alaska Anchorage professor.

The drug is deflating sales of legal animal products such as Alaska reindeer antler and certain Canadian seals, said Frank von Hippel, who teaches conservation biology at UAA.

It only stands to reason that other traditional Asian medicines, such as sea cucumbers, geckos and green sea turtles, also have been displaced by Viagra, he said.

"Some people think (Viagra) is unlikely to have an effect" on traditional medicine markets because other western drugs, such as aspirin, have not reduced demand, von Hippel told the Anchorage Daily News. "But we think this is a unique case. Impotence is a different sort of problem than, say, fever."

The connection first dawned on his brother, William von Hippel, a professor of social psychology at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. He had been teaching in Hong Kong and occasionally visiting apothecaries that sold traditional medicines when Viagra came on the market in early 1998. Not long afterward the brothers were hiking at Campbell Airstrip in Anchorage.

"He ran it by me, and I thought it was good idea," Frank von Hippel said.

They published their hypothesis in a letter to Science magazine in 1998, which caught the attention of several newspapers and magazines. For the next three years they collected data to support their theory, and in September those results were published in the journal Environmental Conservation.

Viagra's effect on the use of many species in traditional medicines cannot be monitored because the trade in some of those products, such as the eggs of green sea turtles, is illegal. Many more rare or endangered species, such as rhinoceros and tigers, are used for other purposes in addition to erectile dysfunction.

But the sales of three species that can be tracked and that are traditionally used to treat impotence suggest Viagra has eroded their markets, the von Hippels say. By extension, they wrote, "Such data provide a proxy for the impact of Viagra on illegally traded species."

Sales of the sex organs of Canadian harp seals and hooded seals plummeted after 1998, when Viagra became available. In two years, the cost of a single organ fell from as much as $100 (Canadian) to $15 to $20, they wrote. Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans attributed part of that market collapse to the new drug.

Western Alaska's reindeer antler industry also took a post-Viagra hit, according to the von Hippels. Though antler sales always have been volatile and were trending downward in the 1990s, the price of antlers fell far more drastically than the price of reindeer meat from 1997 to 1998.

Young Yoon, owner of the Oriental Shopping Center in Anchorage, sells sliced "deer horn" in clear plastic boxes the size of a thick paperback book for $15.99. Declining demand has forced him to drop his price by nearly half over the last five years, he said.

But Yoon said he suspects the faltering Asian economy is more to blame than Viagra. His best customers are visitors from Korea, Japan and other East Asian countries who stock up on sliced antler for themselves and to give as gifts, Yoon said. Sales have fallen as tourism has slowed, he said.

Greg Finstad, manager of the University of Alaska Fairbanks' reindeer research program, agreed that Viagra probably has influenced the reindeer market, but that Korean import restrictions, transportation and marketing problems were equally to blame in the late 1990s.

"We've actually seen it pick up the last couple of years. The demand is coming back and the price is starting to come back," he said.

Like other world markets, reindeer antler is moving in new directions, particularly North America, Finstad said.

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