Mr. Xiaoshun Zeng, PhD candidate, UW Department of History and the China Studies Program, was a panelist for the Woodland Park Zoo One Wild World series, Episode 3, One World: How a Human and an Animal Changed Global Health, which aired on Thursday, October 15, 2020. This series examined the intersection of animals, humans and habitats in a global pandemic. Xiaoshun was asked to address Chinese history and culture. He began by explaining the South China Tiger is an important cultural symbol. The tiger population has decreased during the 20th century and is now critically endangered.
Based on his research of health, medicine and race, Xiaoshun was asked why it is problematic connecting a pandemic to a population of people or place. He responded that there is a tendency to name a disease after a population, animal, or place which creates a stigma, for example, there is no evidence the Spanish Flu of 1918 originated in Spain. In 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) created a new guideline of best practices for naming new human diseases. The guideline states that it is inappropriate to name a disease after specific population groups, geographic names, animals or even cultural or industry occupational references. Earlier this year, the WHO intervened to provide a neutral name for COVID-19 in order to avoid a cultural stigma or negative impression.
A question about poaching tigers from Malaysia and bringing them into China was addressed by Xiaoshun. Tigers are possibly extinct in the wild while tiger parts are trafficked into active black markets in China. Tiger bones are used for medicinal purposes though there is no scientific evidence the bones are a remedy. In 1993, the Chinese government banned tiger bones as medicine. Further, Xiaoshun emphasized that consumption of wildlife for food or medicine should be discussed separately. Food consumption is not mainstream as many people cannot afford to buy exotic wildlife. Currently, 36 animal species and 1,000 plant species are used as herbal or mineral ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine. The Chinese government has also banned the trade of approximately 28 poisonous species and 42 protected or endangered animals or plants. The healing system of traditional Chinese medicine has been marginalized and can be controversial. Those for the practice argue some of the remedies are efficacious and have holistic value. Critics against purport the practice is merely superstitious and has only a placebo effect.
Finally, Xiaoshun shared what we can learn from the history of race and disease to become better moving forward into the future. There are many sad and alarming historical facts of past human treatment of animal species and different races. He summarized it is never too late to treat wild animals with respect and improve race relations. We can achieve a better one world for all of us on this planet.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, US Department of the Interior, was one of the major sponsors of the series. All three episodes are available to view at https://www.zoo.org/OneWildWorld