Why Viagra Could Be Good For Endangered Species

There’s one possible side effect of Viagra that hasn’t really been spoken about.

“My own feeling is that Viagra could be good for endangered species,” said Ginette Hemley, who is director of international wildlife policy at the World Wildlife Fund. Indeed, some of the planet’s most threatened species have become that way because of their touted value as impotence cures, particularly in Asian societies. Chinese herbalists have compiled a pharmacopoeia of remedies, including roots, seeds, herbs, fungi, insects and animal parts. Especially potent, they concluded, were penises-tiger penis being the best. Rhino horn, too, has always been highly prized. As a result, poachers have decimated the ranks of both species. If Viagra can penetrate the Asian market when Pfizer Inc. starts marketing the drug in China and Taiwan in the summer of 1999, might not demand for the poachers’ bounty drop?

“The situation is a little tricky,” said Ms. Hemley. “Traditional Chinese medicine is a whole other way of thinking. But if Viagra takes off in Asia like it has here, the net result could be good.”

A recent stroll through Chinatown indicates, however, that Viagra may meet some resistance. A Chinese herbal shop called IGH Inc., on the corner of Elizabeth and Grand streets, boasts a 12-foot-long glass shelf supporting boxes labeled “Men’s Cheerful Tissue,” “Mr. Happy,” “Strong Men” and “Enjoy Yourself Tonight”-all cures for impotence. Viagra has not dented sales, perhaps because the items on the shelf promise 100 percent efficacy, compared with the measly 70 percent overall success rate reported in Pfizer’s clinical trials. And the bottles mostly cost between $2 and $6, compared to $10 a pill for Viagra. Asked for his best cure, the blustery, leather-faced proprietor pulled a box off the shelf, priced at a steep $18.95 and bearing Chinese characters, no English translation. What’s in it?

“Some sea horse, ginseng, some antler, some penis.”

“Penis? What kind?”

“Maybe some deer, some seal. It’s a top-secret formula.”

Queried about the threat Pfizer’s wonder drug posed to his business, he shook his head. “Vee-ah-ga-ra? What is that?” he asked. “Is it Chinese? No? Then it’s totally different. With this”-he tapped the box-“no side effects. Gives you energy .”

Down the street at Minh Pharmacy, where Western prescription medicines are sold side by side with traditional herbal tonics, shop assistant Wayne Law said herbal impotence cures were selling at 15 to 20 boxes a day, compared to only two or three prescriptions of Viagra.

Even if Viagra worked wonders on impotent Asian men, there are psychological considerations that may make it a hard sell. Jeffrey Chen, an herbalist at Elizabeth Herb Medicine on Elizabeth Street, pointed out that Chinese and Western medicine work on different principles. “With Chinese herbal medicine, the point is not to take a pill and something will happen,” he said. “The herbs work by building the energy inside the body, the qi . Impotence is related to the kidney qi . Some patients might have too much fire, others too much water in the kidney, and so you would have to take different remedies to tonify the qi .”

The folks at the World Wildlife Fund have spent the last five years trying to talk Asian healers out of using endangered species. “The Chinese Government has officially endorsed water buffalo horn as a replacement for rhino,” Ms. Hemley said. “They’ve also launched a fairly ambitious research initiative to find substitutes for tiger bone, which is actually much more widely used in Chinese medicine than tiger penis, and they’re coming up with things like bones of dogs, pigs, cow and, very oddly, a mole rat.”

Lucky Luciano

When fashion designer Luciano Barbera comes to New York from his native Biella, Italy, at the foot of the Italian Alps, he checks into a suite at the Pierre hotel on Fifth Avenue and then walks around the corner to Barneys to see how his $3,500 cashmere-and-wool-blend suits are selling. On his most recent visit, however, he found himself in an apartment in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, surrounded by about 30 people in their early 20’s. The apartment belonged to Matt Wishnow, the 24-year-old son of Mr. Barbera’s best friend, and was decorated in postcollege chic, with retro thrift-store furniture, Rocky Balboa memorabilia and a collection of rare beer bottles. For refreshments, there was a sticky jar of lingonberry jam from Dean & Deluca. A karaoke machine had been set up on a card table. Mr. Barbera, who at 60 bears a resemblance to Sean Connery, though with less hair and better eyebrows, was in the process of charming the guests. He gently held one young woman’s chin and said, “You are fantastic.”

“Gorgeous,” he cooed, rolling his r’s, to another, holding her hands in his.

Meanwhile, Mr. Barbera’s 40-ish son-in-law, Michal Sestak, who runs the American arm of the fashion company, was acting like an overexcited teenager, announcing numerous times, in a thick Italian accent, that everyone was certainly “stoked.”

Mr. Wishnow quieted the small crowd. Then he introduced Mr. Barbera and said, “This is about to become a moment.”

Mr. Barbera feigned modesty, thanked his host, lifted a microphone and launched into “Strangers in the Night.”

(At this point, one might note that Mr. Barbera is no wallflower. He has been seen dancing for hours at downtown nightclubs Life and Cheetah; he has modeled for Hugo Boss)

The song did not go well. The karaoke machine started squawking with feedback, to the groans of those assembled, and Mr. Wishnow’s father, Barry, took his son to task for the technical glitch, yelling, ” Boo , my son! Boo , my son!” But then Mr. Barbera slid into “My Way,” his deep timbre rising and falling, sounding not unlike an Italian Maurice Chevalier. “Mistakes, I’ve made a few, but then again, too few to mention.” The crowd nodded. Between verses, people cheered, “Luc! Luc! Luc!” Mr. Barbera stood with fabulous posture, his eyes twinkling, his white-linen blazer free of the slightest wrinkle. And he didn’t flinch when some girls wearing tube tops began singing along in scratchy, Marlboro Light voices. Mr. Barbera finished the song to great applause, and Mr. Wishnow put on a CD he recently made of a concert Mr. Barbera had given in Italy for friends on his 60th birthday.

Mr. Barbera said fashion and singing were not unrelated. “Everyone, when he’s using his voice, is expressing something of himself,” he said.

His son, Lodovico Barbera, was nearby, nattily dressed in a monogrammed shirt and dark tie. He handles the finances of his father’s $45 million-a-year business. “He makes the romance,” he said, nodding toward his father, “and I make the money.”

Why Viagra Could Be Good For Endangered Species