Animal-based medicines: biological prospect-ion and the sustainable use of zoo therapeutic resources

Eraldo M. Costa-Neto

Feira de Santana State University, Department of Biological Sciences, Km 03, BR 116 – 44031-460 Feira de Santana, Bahia, Brazil


Animals have been used as medicinal resources for the treatment and relief of a myriad of illnesses and diseases in practically every human culture. Although considered by many as superstition, the pertinence of traditional medicine based on animals cannot be denied since they have been methodically tested by pharmaceutical companies as sources of drugs to the modern medical science. The phenomenon of zootherapy represents a strong evidence of the medicinal use of animal resources. Indeed, drug companies and agribusiness companies have been evaluating animals for decades without paying anything to the countries from where these genetic resources are found. The use of animals’ body parts as folk medicines is relevant because it implies additional pressure over critical wild populations. It is argued that many animal species have been overexploited as sources of medicines for the traditional trade. Additionally, animal populations have become depleted or endangered as a result of their use as experimental subjects or animal models. Research on zootherapy should be compatible with the welfare of the medicinal animals, and the use of their by-products should be done in a sustainable way. It is discussed that sustainability is now required as the guiding principle for biological conservation.

Key words: ethnozoology, zootherapy, bioprospection, sustainability.


You are encouraged to be used as medical resources for treatment and relief of a range of practices and diseases in every human culture. A pertinência da traditional medicine based em animais, embora considered as superstição, should not be denied once you are encouraged methodically tested by pharmaceutical companies as a source of drugs for a modern medical science. The phenomenon of zootherapy represents a great deal of medicinal use of animal resources. In fact, the pharmaceutical and agribusiness industries have been guaranteeing for decades to pay taxes to countries that hold genetic resources. A utilization of parts of the corporate body as a remedy is traditional and relevant because it implies additional press on critical jungle populations. It is argued that muitas animais species are being explored excessively as sources of medicines for or traditional commerce. Além disso, as populações animais ficaram exauridas ou ameaçadas as a result of use as experimental objects or animais models. A research on zootherapy should be compatible with or bem-be two animals, assim as or use two produtos medicais should be guided steadily. I know that sustainability must be considered as a guiding principle for biological conservation.

Palavras-chave: ethnozoology, zootherapy, bioprospecção, sustainability.


Chemicals from nature have been a part of human civilization ever since our early ancestors began exploiting natural compounds to improve and enrich their own lives (Agosta 1996). A major part of these chemicals come from animals. Indeed, animals are therapeutic arsenals that have been playing significant roles in the healing processes, magic rituals, and religious practices of peoples from the five continents (Costa-Neto and Marques 2000). The healing of human ailments by using therapeutics that are obtained from animals or ultimately are derived from them is known as zootherapy. Animal-based medicines have been elaborated from parts of the animal body, from products of its metabolism (body secretions and excrements), or from non-animal materials (nests and cocoons).

The ample geographical distribution of zootherapy has made that Marques (1994) states that all human culture that shows a developed medical system will utilize animals as medicines. Such a statement forms the basis of what he has called as ‘zootherapeutic universality hypothesis.’ Because medical systems are organized as cultural systems, the use of animal substances should be understood according to a cultural perspective.

It is well known that the annual global trade in animal-based medicinal products accounts for billions of dollars per year (Kunin and Lawton 1996). The investigation of traditional medicines has proven a valuable tool in the developing art of bioprospecting for pharmaceutical compounds. Of the 252 essential chemicals that have been selected by the World Health Organization, 11.1% come from plants, and 8.7% from animals (Marques 1997). And of the 150 prescription drugs currently in use in the United States of America, 27 have animal origin (World Resources Institute 2000).

In order to stress how important animals were, are and can be as sources of pharmacological substances, this paper will discuss very briefly the phenomenon of zootherapy in its general terms.


The traditional medical knowledge of indigenous peoples throughout the world has played an important role in identifying biological resources worthy of commercial exploitation. Indeed, the search for new pharmaceuticals from naturally occurring biological material has been guided by ethnobiological data (Blakeney 1999). For example, Alexiades (unpublished data) recorded the medicinal use of 50 animals by the Ese Eja people from Peru. The blood of the black caiman (Melanosuchus niger [Spix 1825]) is used to treat epilepsy and stroke; ants of the genus Pseudomyrmex are smashed ad put in toothache, or are left to bite painful joints. In the area of ​​Sierra Madre people use to say ” The more poisonous the animal, the more potent its antipoison ” (Werner 1970). This author points out that various anatomical parts of the rattlesnake (Crotalus sp.) Are used for infirmities ranging from boils to bronchitis.

El-Kamali (2000) has recorded 23 animals that are used as sources of remedies in the Sudanese traditional medicine. For example, the fresh manure of a dromedary (Camelus dromedaries [Linnaeus 1758]) is applied externally on the affected parts to alleviate arthritis; honey is used in the treatment of hepatic and gastrointestinal disorders, gastric ulcers, as well as to heal wounds; the fats of the lion (Panthera leo [Linnaeus 1758]) and hyena (Crocuta crocuta [Erxleben 1777]) are used topically to alleviate abdominal pains. Adeola (1992) has also recorded 23 species in three ecological zones from Nigeria. I stresses that most farmers in rural areas in Nigeria depend solely on wild animals and their by-products (hooves, tusks, bones, feathers, skins) for their daily animal protein supply and preparation of traditional medicine. For example, the tusks of hippo (Hippopotamus amphibious [Linnaeus 1758]) are used for aphrodisiacs and ornamentals. Other custom includes the use of fat extracted from a manatee (Trichechus senegalensis Link 1795) to cure rheumatism, boils, and backache. Hollow parts of the hooves of duikers (Sylvicapra grimmia [Linnaeus 1758]) and antelopes (Hippotragus equines [Desmarest 1804]) are special containers for concoctions with herbs to invoke or appease traditional gods and witches. Most Africans believe that there are some magical powers which are attached to special healing acts when wild animals by-products are used as directed by a traditional healer. Consequently the traditional medicine man, in his preparation of drugs, employs different means – including use of herbs, roots, leaves, bark, mammals, and birds. For the majority of the people both in the Sudan and in Nigeria, traditional medicine remains the main or only source of health care. However, poaching of wild animals for meat and medicinal purposes is a major problem in all the game reserves and national parks from Africa.

In China, research on medicinal uses of earthworms has a history of nearly 4,000 years (Zhang et al. 1992). Compendium of Materia Medica written by Li Schizhen in 1578 AD was a comprehensive summary of pharmacological knowledge accumulated in China up to his time. According to traditional Chinese medicine, earthworms possess antipyretic, antispasmodic, diuretic, antihypertensive, antiallergic, antiasthmatic, detoxic, and spermatocidal effects. Earthworm medicines are prescribed to treat over 80 diseases (e.g., asthma, hypertension, mumps, ulcer, epilepsy, cancer, etc.). Earthworm extract is worth further study especially as a new spermatocide (Zhang et al. 1992).

Over 500 species of insects, mites, and spiders are used as medicines to cure both common and complicated ailments in Chhattisgarh, India (Oudhia 1995). For example, the oil from the red velvet mite (Trombidium grandissimum Koch 1867) is useful for paralysis. Also due to its ability to increase the sexual desire, these mites are named as Indian Viagra. The pod borer Helicoverpa armigera (Hübner 1805) alone or in combination with herbal drugs is used to treat more than 50 common diseases. Folk doctors from Chhattisgarh said that those insects with high medicinal value can be easily identified through their specific behavior and feeding habits. Indeed, insect behavior can help to discover useful compounds by leading an observer to an unusual chemical (Joyce 1991). If ants turn up their noses at a fallen leaf, or predators avoid an insect’s egg when it is covered with its mother’s saliva, chemistry is at work. By keeping a lookout for this kind of telltale behavior, ecologists can spot interesting compounds.

Artisanal fishermen from Siribinha Beach in the State of Bahia, Northeastern Brazil, have been using several marine / estuarine animal resources as folk medicines (Costa-Neto and Marques 2000). Twenty-four fish species were recorded as having some therapeutic use when they were questioned about their folk medicine. Although interviews focused on fish-based remedies, fifteen other animals with.

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