In a controversial and surprising move, China announced on Monday that it will reverse a decades-old ban on the use of rhinoceros horns and tiger bones in medicine.
As Javier C. Hernández of the New York Times reports, China’s State Council said the reversal will only apply to certified hospitals and doctors, and that the parts must be sourced from animals raised in captivity, excluding zoo animals. But conservationists worry that that a legal trade will provide cover for poached rhino and tiger parts, imperilling already threatened species.
In traditional Chinese medicine, rhino horns and tiger bones are believed to be useful in healing a variety of ailments, including cancer, rheumatism, and gout. China prohibited the trade of these animal parts in 1993, but a black market continued to thrive.
With the legalization of the trade, wild rhinos and tigers could face even greater threats to their survival. At the beginning of the 20th century, some 500,000 rhinos roamed through Africa and Asia; around 30,000 are alive today, their numbers decimated by poaching and habitat loss. Tiger populations have started to recover after years of aggressive hunting, but their numbers are still drastically low: less than 4,000 are believed to exist in the wild today.
A sanctioned trade in tiger and rhino parts may fuel illegal poaching because, as Dina Fine Maron points out in National Geographic, it is impossible to distinguish between parts sourced from captive animals and those obtained from wild animals without a DNA test. Margaret Kinnaird, wildlife practice leader of the World Wildlife Fund, notes that the new policy “will also stimulate demand that had otherwise declined since the ban was put in place.” She calls the reversal of the 1993 ban “deeply concerning.”
China did not explain the thinking behind its new policy, which seems to fly in the face of the country’s recent implementation of a ban on the sale and processing of ivory. Peter Knights, chief executive of the environmental organization WildAid, tells Gary Shih of the Washington Post that news of the reversal comes as a “shock.”
The country may have been motivated in part by a desire to bolster its traditional medicine industry, which is valued at more than $100 billion dollars, according to the Times’ Hernández. But traditional medicine practitioners may not have been the ones pushing for the change in legislation. As Maron of National Geographic reports, the World Federation of Chinese Medicine Societies, which determines what materials can be used in traditional products, removed tiger bone and rhino horn from its list of approved ingredients in the wake of the 1993 ban.
Some conservationists believe the pressure is more likely coming from proprietors of tiger farms and rhino ranches. The number of rhinos in captivity in China is unknown, but “at least several thousand tigers” were found to be held at farms across the country in 2013, writes Maron.
“Captive tigers are incredibly expensive to feed and care for, so as these numbers grew, so did pressure on the Chinese government to allow a regulated trade in tiger products,” Leigh Henry, director of wildlife policy at the WWF, tells Maron. “China's decision is what many of us have feared for over a decade.”