How a little blue pill could get big results — in species conservation, we mean
Quick: what do sea turtles, black bears, and Philippine fruit bats have in common?
At first glance, not much. They don’t look alike, and they have very different ranges and habitats. In fact, one would be hard-pressed even to find them on any of the same guest lists.
But these creatures share one very important trait. Along with seahorses, rhinoceroses, and macaques, they are all hunted, sold, and consumed for use in potions and dishes with alleged “aphrodisiacal properties.” For men. And I think we know what that means.
In a more perfect world, we men might be willing to age gracefully and hang up — well, whatever it is we hang up, say, spurs — and retire from certain pleasures of the flesh. When that happens, though, men will be too distracted to care. We’ll be busy watching pigs fly.
Until that day arrives, there will be a market for products that enhance “male performance” (presumably not in rugby). In Asia and Central America, among other places, this means resorting to traditional, animal-based remedies. Two tragedies can result. The first is personal: they may not work. The second is even, ahem, greater: threatened species are being hunted to extinction, with untold consequences for ecosystems and economies.
As experts in international development know, however, this is generally not a matter of good guys and bad guys, black hats and white. Poachers, often poor and uneducated, are simply trying to make a living by meeting a demand. If the market for their contraband product dries up, or if alternative livelihoods are available, they might well find other work.
Of course, this is easier said than done. Behavior and culture take time to change, and there is no silver bullet. There is, however, a little blue pill.
Photo: Lynne Lancaster.
Yupper. That one. Sildenafil citrate, though no one calls it that. It is currently sold by Pfizer (in which I have no stock) under the name of Viagra, but even after the patent expires the name seems likely to remain in the language, like Kleenex or Xerox, as the term for a whole product category and not just one brand.
Of course, there are now other products for the treatment of erectile dysfunction, which goes by the friendly acronym ED. (This sounds like someone you might play poker with once a week.) Treatments for our pal ED now include Bayer and GlaxoSmithKline’s Levitra (vardenafil hydrochloride), a brand name derived from the Latin root of the verb “to raise,” and ICOS and Eli Lilly’s Cialis (tadalafil), which sounds like an MTV VJ from the late 1980s. More brands are forthcoming and, as with Viagra, after the patent period expires, the eventual generic market for these drugs is expected to be sizeable.
The implication is clear. If we want to save black bears and rhinos, we have to get these drugs into the hands of the people who would otherwise be paying for those animals’ parts or doing the hunting for themselves.
Many can pay, and for them — and our endangered animal friends — liberalized trade and e-commerce have their advantages.
But those who can’t pay shouldn’t be left out. Responsibly packaged along with condoms, to prevent unwanted pregnancies and the spread of disease, a little pharmaceutical lift might brighten an aid recipient’s day a wee bit more than the typical relief package of rice, beans, and cooking oil. Scented candles, of course, could be optional.
Believe it or not, there’s a precedent for this. In 1998, Bear Stearns chair Alan “Ace” Greenberg (bless him) donated $1 million to New York’s Hospital for Special Surgery to provide Viagra to men who otherwise couldn’t afford it, when that was the only game in town. Whatever else the recipients of his largesse might be doing, they don’t have to scour the alleys and backrooms of Manhattan in an attempt to score black-bear gall bladder, macaque meat, or powdered seahorse. Other potential donors (we’re looking at you, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) could do the same for the developing world.
Of course, no proposal is perfect. Pharmaceutical manufacturing creates pollution in the form of smokestack emissions and runoff. And pharmaceutical use produces externalities: fluoxetine hydrochloride, the active ingredient in Prozac, has been detected in (probably cheerful) fish in urban waterways. While the effects of ED medications on aquatic life have not been studied extensively, one might have reason to believe that in some places the fish will really be jumpin’. The situation will need to be watched, though not too closely — that would be kind of creepy.
The private sector, governments, and NGOs all have roles to play in what could be one of the most important conservation initiatives of our time. Countless biotic and human communities could benefit.
And the old methods wouldn’t be missed. As far as I can tell, no one is eating Philippine fruit bat for the taste.