China Lifts Ban on Rhino and Tiger Parts Trade
Monday, China's State Council authorized the use of the rhino horns and tiger bones in medical purposes, putting an end to a 25-year ban on the international trade of these animals’ parts, established in 1993 in Beijing. The decision was met by a wave of negative responses from environmental activists, concerned with the potential detrimental effect on the numbers of the endangered species.
The State Council’s new policy allows the trade of rhino horns and tiger bones from farmed animals, excluding those raised in zoos, for “cultural exchange” and scientific and medical research. Although the government did not comment on the rationale behind the change, it is widely believed that the change was made to help boost traditional Chinese medicine, which attributes special healing powers to these animal parts. In traditional Chinese medicine, rhino horns are prescribed for a number of conditions including fever and food poisoning, while powdered tiger bones are turned into a wine that is believed to improve health and virility. As of today, the industry is estimated to be worth over $100 billion and counts as many as 500,000 practitioners.
A 2010 symposium in Beijing held by the World Federation of Chinese Medicine Societies concluded that “medicinal benefits of tiger bone have no basis”. Environmentalists fear that partial legalization could lead to the growth of the black market and encourage traffickers to poach threatened species.
Colman O’Criodain, a wildlife trade specialist at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) summarizes the concern: “If poachers think that there’s even a possibility of laundering the product, that will be enough to increase their activities. Basically, people are betting on extinction.” There are just under 30,000 rhinos and 3,900 tigers left in the wild in China. These numbers may be too low to satisfy the demand of the entire Chinese industry, and will possibly lead to increased demand on tiger farms across Southeast Asia and rhino ranches in South Africa.
The Chinese government stated that it will prevent the growth of the underground trade by “strictly controlling” the trade volume of the rhino and tiger-related products. This includes making sure that “rhino horn and bones from dead tigers can only be used in qualified hospitals by qualified doctors recognized by the State Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine”. The control over products considered as cultural relics will be administered by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and the State Administration of Cultural Heritage. In case any illegal products are found in individual collections, they will be confiscated and never traded again.
However, the country has struggled to control the trade of ivory, a similarly coveted product produced from endangered species. “China's experience with the domestic ivory trade has clearly shown the difficulties of trying to control parallel legal and illegal markets for ivory,” – commented Margaret Kinnaird, of the World Wildlife Fund. Many fear this difficulty will translate to the newly legalized rhino and tiger trade.