**Update: On November 12, the Chinese Government fortunately decided to postpone its lifting of this ban. Thus, as of now China's ban on the use of tiger and rhino parts remains in place!**
Over the last several years, China has made some great strides when it comes to its wildlife policies. It has reformed its wildlife laws, is creating a national park system to protect certain imperiled species like tigers and leopards, and banned its domestic ivory trade. I certainly wish they’d go further—but the situation has definitely improved.
That’s why I was surprised to see China’s State Council announcement that it’s legalizing the use of tiger bone and rhino horn from captive bred animals by hospitals.
In doing this, China is reversing 25-year old precedent. This week’s notice abolishes and replaces a notice the Chinese government issued on May 29, 1993, which banned the trade in tiger bone and rhino horn by removing them from the traditional Chinese medicine pharmacopeia—the list of species utilized for traditional Chinese medicines.
Tiger and rhino populations are not doing well. Listed as Endangered on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List, the wild tiger population stands at 2,154 - 3,159 mature individuals and is decreasing due to international trade, conflict killings, habitat loss, and other factors. In fact, tigers have become so rare that Asian demand has turned to other species like lions, to compensate for their loss. Similarly, rhinos have been decimated by persistent poaching and habitat loss, with three species—Javan, Sumatran, and Black rhinos—listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN.
This week’s announcement means things are about to get even worse.
Allowing some trade in a species, while banning other trade in the same species, could confuse consumers and law enforcement as to which products are legal. Elephants are a prime example of this. While many countries, including China, are closing their domestic ivory markets, for many years legal markets facilitated parallel illegal markets because only trained experts can tell the difference between old ivory and new ivory.
The situation here is no different. Just as it’s almost impossible to discern whether ivory is old or new, there’s no way to tell whether the rhino and tiger parts used in traditional Chinese medicine are wild, as the announcement requires, or actually farmed. Poachers and wildlife traffickers know this and will undoubtedly seize upon this loophole, killing wild rhinos and tigers and sneaking them onto China’s medicinal market under the pretense that they are “farmed.” Put simply, this will stimulate demand in wild rhinos and tigers that has appeared to decline since the 1993 ban was put into place.
This move also leverages South Africa’s decades-long attempt to lift the ban on international commercial trade in rhino horn under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Over the years, the global community has pushed back on South Africa by, among other things, arguing that South Africans would be unable to profit from the trade if the ban were lifted, since it’s illegal to buy rhino horn in Asia’s largest markets. With China’s announcement, that argument no longer stands.
This has already become clear; on November 1, the Private Rhino Owners Association (PROA) of South Africa—a group that has long-advocated for legalizing the international commercial trade in rhino horn so that they may profit off of their farmed rhinos—wrote a letter to the Chinese government stating that China has "now sent a clear message that a legal trade [in rhino horn] is the solution." In the letter, PROA offers up its members' 10 tons of rhino horn stockpiles for trade in China if the CITES ban is lifted.
China’s announcement to control trade of rhino and tiger will likely result in the opposite—an out of control spike in demand, which will stimulate poaching. This contradicts China’s direction on other wildlife issues, such as its new national park to protect tigers. The global community has reached consensus that domestic markets must be closed, despite knowing that not all countries have the capacity to actually enforce such a viewpoint. Why is China—with its vast capacity and know-how—turning against the tide?