China will allow the traditional use of rhino products despite a lack of scientific evidence for medicinal benefits.
It’s been less than a year since China received international praise for banning its ivory trade, keeping a promise to protect wildlife and shutting down dozens of processing facilities and retail outlets. That’s part of the reason for why much of the world is mystified by a sudden reversal on the use of rhino horns and tiger bones, announced this week by the Chinese government.
Beijing has been hailed as a model of progress, with a September report jointly released by the World Wildlife Fund and TRAFFIC showing a 30 percent drop in ivory products at market. That’s still too much ivory traded under the ban, but the news was warmly received by proud Chinese officials. Yet the latest development gives cause for alarm. China now says it will allow but strictly control the use of powders, bones and other products derived from rhino and tigers instead of maintaining a 25-year ban.
Rhino horn has been used in Chinese medicine for more than 2,000 years and is used to treat fever, rheumatism, gout, and other disorders, according to Save the Rhino. The horns are made of keratin, common to other animals and humans but with a more chemically complex composition than other species.
China will allow the traditional use of the products, despite the lack of scientific evidence for medicinal benefit – and in spite of the fact that no matter how well regulated, it creates opportunity for traffickers. Save the Rhino has called the decision a “Pandora’s box that should never have been opened.” Yet China promises that apart from scientific use the rhino and tiger products remain illegal.
“Rhino horns and tiger bones used in medical research or in healing can only be obtained from farmed rhinos and tigers, not including those raised in zoos,” the government assured in its announcement. “Powdered forms of rhino horn and bones from dead tigers can only be used in qualified hospitals by qualified doctors recognized by the State Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine.”
The decision also is disappointing for the same international wildlife advocacy groups that have praised the Chinese for their domestic efforts to control the illegal trade and for their international leadership, and who warn that the global impact on wildlife has become catastrophic.
“China’s decision to reopen a legalized trade in farmed tiger bone and rhino horn reverses 25 years of conservation progress in reducing the demand for these products in traditional Chinese medicine and improving the effectiveness of law enforcement,” said Leigh Henry, director of wildlife policy for the World Wildlife Fund in the United States. “This devastating reversal by China runs completely counter to the image of wildlife champion the world had come to expect with China’s ivory trade ban, which was such a positive development for the world’s elephants.”
The WWF is asking China to not only maintain the 1993 ban on tiger bone and rhino horn trade, but to extend it to all tiger parts and products no matter their source. Some 6,500 tigers live in China’s tiger farms, far more than the roughly 3,900 remaining in the wild, the WWF said.
China has used public education campaigns, the promotion of traditional medicine substitutes, and robust law enforcement to curb the trade in tiger and rhino. “Allowing the legal market for such parts to resume will be detrimental to conservation efforts, potentially fueling the demand for these products and increasing poaching of wild tigers and rhinos,” the WWF warned.