In a surprising statement, Chinese officials announced the reversal of the 25-year ban on trading rhinoceros and tiger parts. The decision means that items like rhino horns and tiger bones can be imported and exported for certain purposes, including “medical research,” traditional medicinal use, and what is being called “cultural exchanges.”
The Chinese government did place some limits on the acquisition and trade of rhino and tiger parts, including that the items must be sourced from farms, provided by authorized distributors, and handled by physicians they deem qualified.
According to a report by IFL Science, China is claiming that the decision is an attempt to crack down on illegal trade.
However, conservationists are condemning the policy. They believe that the partial legalization will increase demand for rhino horn and tiger bones, bolstering both legal and illegal trade while further endangering the vulnerable species.
Currently, estimates suggest there are only 30,000 wild rhinos and as few as 3,800 wild tigers.
“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,” said Iris Ho, senior specialist for Wildlife Program and Policy at Humane Society International, 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.”
While the precise reason for the reversal is unknown, some believe that tiger farmers have been pressuring the Chinese government, even though one investigation showed that tiger bone trading was occurring quietly at these facilities prior to the reversal, potentially with support from the government.
Another theory is that the traditional medicine community was a factor, as tiger bones and rhino horns are both used as treatments for a variety of conditions, even though modern medicine provides more effective solutions today.
The decision is also surprising as China has recently been introducing pro-wildlife policies, including closing the nation’s 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,” said Margaret Kinnaird, WWF Wildlife Practice Leader, 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.”