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Whenever conservationist Reana Ng walks into a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) shop, she gets a “look”, she says wryly. “They just know that you’re not coming in to buy traditional medicine... why are you here?”
Undeterred, Ng continues to visit these shops. Since March, this Masters student has been gathering information on the many uses of seahorses and on how people in Peninsular Malaysia use them.
TCM has been used in Malaysia for centuries. Currently, an estimated 6,000 TCM practitioners serve a largely ethnic Chinese clientele.
Seahorses are used in TCM to resolve a very broad range of ailments, including skin conditions, blood cleansing and heatiness (unbalanced yin-yang energy due to too much yang force).
The very first shop Ng visited is what is known locally as a traditional medical hall, with glass-topped counters fronting a prominent dark-brown medicine cabinet with red sunburst-fringing drawer knobs.
Behind the counter is a wizened shopkeeper in a white Pagoda-brand T-shirt tucked into striped pyjama pants. He stares coldly at her, remaining monosyllabic until she identifies herself as half-Chinese (Ng is half-Indian).
So, cultural precepts are the basis for dialogue here, she notes.
The now-amenable practitioner goes to the back and brings out plastic containers of dried seahorses and pipefishes to show Ng.
To her question as to how he sells the fish, whether by piece or weight, he pulls out a brass dang cing (traditional Chinese scales) complete with red tassels, to show her. (The cost is RM1,000 for 300gm of the fish.)
The practitioner also regales her with detailed seahorse-based medical recipes and answers questions about seahorse threats (bycatch is a “minor threat”) and cost (“they’re too expensive”).
For Ng, who is trained in zoology and ecology, the whole experience was an eye-opener into the cultural world of TCM. It is an understanding she is building for her research project, ‘Seahorses: Traditional Medicine, Cultural Values and Trade in Malaysia’.Dried seahorses have been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for centuries
TCM is the most widely known use of seahorses in the world. This is likely true in Malaysia too, but the last published research on this is almost 20 years old.
“Seahorses are traded in our country more than we think,” Ng said.
“Due to the lack of data, it’s perceived as not traded as much compared to pangolins or elephant (ivory).” This, she said, leads to a lack of urgency among stakeholders to conserve seahorses.
For decades, researchers have considered Malaysia to be significant in seahorse exploitation because of its large ethnic Chinese population, extensive seahorse habitats and central location for regional trade.
Locally, seahorses are not targeted by fishers but caught unintentionally as bycatch, particularly through bottom-trawling, which sweeps everything up in large nets. Globally, the UN estimates that trawling results in 4.2 million tonnes of bycatch and discards.