Chinese officials released a surprising statement yesterday, announcing the reversal of a 25-year ban on the trade of tiger and rhino parts.
This means tiger bones and rhino horns can be imported and exported for use in "medical research", traditional medicine, and what the Chinese government refers to as "cultural exchanges" – but only so long as they are sourced from farms, issued by authorized distributors, and handled by qualified physicians.
China has painted this seriously controversial decision as an attempt to crack down on illegal trade but conservationists have condemned the policy. They say that partially legalizing trade will fuel demand for tiger bones and rhino horns legally and illegally sourced, putting these two already vulnerable animals in even greater danger. As of right now, there are an estimated 30,000 rhinos left in the wild, while the number of wild tigers could be as low as 3,800.
"With this announcement, the Chinese government has signed a death warrant for imperiled rhinos and tigers in the wild who already face myriad threats to their survival," Iris Ho, senior specialist for Wildlife Program and Policy at Humane Society International, said in a statement.
"Not only could this lead to the risk of legal trade providing cover to illegal trade, this policy will also stimulate demand that had otherwise declined since the ban was put in place."
The statement itself does not explicitly mention a change in law or give a reason for the U-turn on the sale of endangered animal parts. Some suspect it could be the result of pressure from tiger farms, which – according to an investigation led by the Environmental Investigation Agency – have been dealing in tiger bones on the down-low (and in cahoots with the Chinese government) for years. The government has denied (or ignored) all involvement.
Alternatively, it could be seen as a concession to the traditional medicine community. Tiger bones are said to improve virility, strength, and masculinity, while rhino horns are prescribed to treat an improbable range of conditions from fever and gout to snakebites, hallucinations, and "devil possession". Of course, this is total BS and there are plenty of other treatments that are easily available (not to mention far more effective). Despite this, the industry still employs some 500,000 practitioners and is valued at more than $100 billion, reports the New York Times.
Regardless of the motive, it's a surprising decision for the Chinese government to take so soon after introducing a string of pro-environment, pro-wildlife policies, including the closure of its domestic ivory trade.
"With wild tiger and rhino populations at such low levels and facing numerous threats, legalized trade in their parts is simply too great a gamble for China to take," Margaret Kinnaird, WWF Wildlife Practice Leader, said in a statement.
"This decision seems to contradict the leadership China has shown recently in tackling the illegal wildlife trade, including the closure of their domestic ivory market, a game changer for elephants warmly welcomed by the global community."