Viagra has surely had many unintended consequences, but one of the strangest is the help it might bring to vulnerable animal species. Since the drug was introduced in 1998, the trade in some wild animal parts traditionally used in the creation of "impotence cures" has fallen drastically. And two researchers who have studied that trade in Canada and Alaska say they believe the link is no coincidence.
Sales of Alaskan reindeer antlers -- the velvet is used in traditional Chinese medicine to enhance potency -- declined by 72 percent from 1997 to 1998, according to the researchers, Frank von Hippel, a conservation biologist at the University of Alaska, and his brother,William, a professor of psychology at the University of New South Wales. Meanwhile, sales of hooded and harp seal penises fell from around 40,000 in 1996 to 20,000 in 1998. Other factors undoubtedly played a role; both reindeer and seals are also killed for their fur and meat, for example. But in an article they published in Environmental Conservation this fall, the von Hippels noted that while sales of reindeer meat fell in the same period, they did not fall nearly as far as antler sales. And the Canadian government, in a report on seal management in 2001, also cited Viagra as one factor among several (including higher fuel and ammunition costs and the phasing out of government subsidies for seal meat) that contributed to a decline in the seal trade.
Hooded and harp seals and Alaskan reindeer are not endangered and are killed and traded legally, which makes the traffic in them comparatively easy to study. But the von Hippels say that these animals are a useful proxy for threatened species. Early this year, the brothers interviewed apothecaries in Hong Kong, asking about changing demand for a long list of animal products, including some derived from threatened or endangered species of sea horses, geckos and green turtles, that are often used to alleviate sexual dysfunction. "What we found," says Frank von Hippel, who has not yet published these results, "was a modest but statistically significant decline in sales of these products. And when you're talking about threatened or endangered species, any kind of decline matters. Especially when we have so few other effective means of halting the trade."
The von Hippels have also compiled a long list of animals that could benefit should Viagra ever be made available in Africa, including baboons, gorillas, chimpanzees and spotted hyenas. "Of course," Frank von Hippel admits, "you'd have to have a situation where Viagra was basically being given away, since most people in Africa couldn't afford it."
Some conservation advocates are skeptical about the von Hippels' hopes for Viagra. Critics point out that plenty of effective Western medicines for other conditions, from headaches to epilepsy, have failed to make a dent in the market for traditional Chinese medicines. Why should Viagra be any different? Frank von Hippel argues that it just is. "Viagra treats a problem that is so important to men, and its effect is immediate and obvious. In that sense, it's a unique replacement."
Copyright 2002, The New York Times Magazine