For several years, conservationists have gritted their teeth but been unable to do anything in the face of China's covert tiger skin trade. China keeps around 5,500 tigers in captivity at (often ill-equipped) zoos and farms around the country. When those tigers die or are put down, evidence from undercover investigations indicates that their skin and bones are quietly sold to Chinese citizens who value them for decorative purposes, or for their purported medicinal properties.
China, however, has refused to admit any of this goes on - until now, that is.
Last week, Chinese officials at a meeting in Geneva admitted that they do allow trade in tiger skins, the BBC reports. The officials were taking part in a meeting for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), and it is unclear whether or not they actually meant to let that bit of information slip out. According to the BBC, after a controversial presentation the Chinese officials gave about their "legal" trade in tiger skins, the other delegates point-blank asked the Chinese officials if they banned trade in tigers. The official replied, "We don't ban trade in tiger skins but we do ban trade in tiger bones," the BBC reports.
As one conservationist later commented to the BBC: "The clarification was necessary because the Chinese delegate did not say that it was happening on a commercial scale, and there was a risk that the trade could later be misreported as something done for scientific research or, say, displays in the museums." Conservationists often argue that such a legal trade only perpetuates demand for illegal products, which can be laundered and passed off as legal.
Even if that admission was a slip-up, it is an important first step for China. The country publicly condemns trade in tiger parts, and - thanks to recent legislation - anyone caught eating or trading in endangered species parts can go to jail for up to 10 years. But as Smart News wrote last year, much of the trade still goes on under the radar, either through loophole rules pertaining to trade of farmed animals, or simply through black market channels.
Whether or not China's admission about this trade - at least when it comes to tiger skins - will actually make a difference for protecting those animals is yet to be seen. Soon after the statement was made at the CITES meeting, an official from China's Foreign Ministry told the BBC that the country would be "investigating and combating" that illegal trade in skins. One official from India also told the BBC that he sees it as a step forward for protecting tigers. "Denial mode does not help solve the problem but once you accept what is happening, it's easy to move ahead," he said.