Don’t ask me how I got to Kalmykia.
It had something to do with the president of Kalmykia, the only Buddhist republic in Europe. Part of the Russian Federation, located between the Black and Caspian Seas, the Republic of Kalmykia is run by an eccentric genius named Kirsan Ilyumzhinov: Conservationist, publisher, ex-president of the World Chess Federation, and according to recent news, alien abductee. My circuitous route through the study of Kalmykia brought me to one of its most peculiar animals: the Saiga antelope.
Look at that schnoz! The saiga’s elephantine nose is well-suited to the tundra: in the winter, it warms up cold air before it hits the lungs, and in the summer, it filters out the dust. During the last ice age, they roamed from England to Alaska. At the end of the 1800’s, they still roamed from the Carpathians to Mongolia. By 1920, they were almost extinct, restricted to central Eurasian countries like Kalmykia. Why? Because conservation groups and governments encouraged hunting them as a substitute for the white rhino, claiming that their horns could take the place of the white rhino’s horn in traditional Chinese medicine. Boiled rhino horn is used to treat fever, convulsions, and delirium. Elephant skin for acne. Bear bile for heart and liver conditions. Tiger bone for rheumatism.
Say what you will about the evils of Western Medicine and our dependence on mysterious pharmaceuticals that are all science, no nature. At least we are not using Traditional Chinese Medicine, which is largely a homeopathic version of our European medieval medicine. (Remember “humours” and leeches?) At a traditional Chinese pharmacy you might buy a bottle of ground seahorse or snake glands the way we buy echinacea. In fact, Chinese medicine is the number one killer of endangered species worldwide. Though many practitioners now refuse to use things like tiger bone, and it’s officially illegal in China, there’s still a huge market for “the real stuff,” which means that these endangered species of both animals aren’t just poached, they’re farmed. At bear farms, for example, bears are kept in cages barely big enough for them while their bile is “milked” from their spleens with a huge needle twice a day. More than 5,000 tigers are raised for parts on tiger farms, not just for bones but for their penises, which are supposed to increase virility. (I’ve read that the most powerful weapon against the black market sale of endangered animal parts has been Viagra.)
It’s a dangerous and misguided theory shared by both medieval and Chinese medicine: The doctrine of signatures. The idea is that if something looks like a human organ, it will help heal that organ; liverwort, for example, was used for liver diseases because of the hepatic shape of the leaf. The doctrine of signatures is dangerous because it presumes everything on Earth was put here for us. We never considered that, in fact, we are shaped like the world. The pharmacy of the Earth may contain everything we need to heal our bodies, but we have to keep it healthy and replenished first. That’s true balance: our bodies belong to the world, and when it gets sick and wounded, so do we. When the tigers are all gone, we will feel the ache in our bones.