China's New Wildlife Import Policy Poses Fresh Dangers to Tigers And Rhinos

A commentary by Dan Southerland
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china-rhino.jpg A South African protester holds a sign and a fake rhino horn during a demonstration outside the Chinese embassy in Pretoria, calling on the government to stop poachers from killing rhinos for their horns, in file photo.

China’s decision to lift a ban on rhinoceros horn and tiger bone imports may now make the animals easier targets for poachers and black marketers, a number of wildlife conservation experts say.

The Chinese government said that it is lifting the ban so that approved hospitals can use the imported bones and horns for “medicinal research or in healing.”

In announcing an end to the ban, China’s State Council said on October 29 that only animals in captivity would be used in the research and that this would exclude zoo animals.

Peter Knights, CEO of the San Francisco-based nonprofit organization WildAid, said that “while tiger populations have stabilized, the danger is this policy change could invigorate demand for tiger parts and also lead to an increase in poaching.”

Tiger bones and other parts of the animals such as their teeth have been sought over the centuries in China and several Southeast Asian countries for their alleged healing value.

Tiger parts are said to cure many maladies, and this belief supported an underground trade in poached tigers even while the 25-year-long ban was ostensibly in effect.

Government officials said, however, that the use of imported horns and bones will now be strictly regulated and that tiger bones will come from government-sanctioned “tiger farms.”

Environmentalists have countered that China’s state-sanctioned commercial tiger farms have served to provide cover for the illegal trading in tiger bones, which is highly profitable.

The farms pose a risk, they say, to an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 tigers currently held in captivity in China as well as to the country’s few remaining wild tigers.

From cures to status symbols

In a blog written for the National Geographic in 2015, Sharon Guynup described how over the centuries in China almost magical powers have been attributed to tigers.

Tiger bone powder, sometimes made into tiger-bone wine, is believed to help cure everything from liver and kidney diseases to eczema, epilepsy, baldness, toothaches, and joint pain.

No scientific evidence has been produced to verify this, and leaders among traditional Chinese medicine practitioners have tried to discourage the use of both rhino horns and tiger bones, but to no avail.

The Economist magazine recently interviewed Zhu Meng, a practitioner of traditional medicine in Beijing, who was cheering the lifting of the ban on the bones and horns that was imposed 25 years ago in 1993.

Ms. Zhu asserted that tiger bone mixed with alcohol can cure arthritis and that rhino-horn powder can help in the treatment of cerebrovascular disease, among other things.

Meanwhile, as some Chinese have grown wealthier in recent years, tiger bones and pelts have become status symbols, which is another factor contributing to the underground trade in tiger parts.

Tiger-bone wine has become yet another status symbol, with an eight-year-old wine selling for around $290 a bottle as of  2015, according to the writer Lauren Rothman.

Promoting traditional Chinese medicine

New York Times China correspondent Javier C. Hernandez, reporting on Oct. 29, cited experts as saying that the move to lift the ban on rhino horn tiger imports was likely related to the Chinese government’s efforts to encourage the growth of  traditional Chinese medicine.

Traditional Chinese medicine, with more than 500,000 medical practitioners, constitutes an industry valued at more than $100 billion.

China’s President Xi Jinping “has used Chinese medicine as a way to expand China’s overseas influence, and his government has promoted it in places like Zimbabwe and Nepal,” Hernandez reports.

In contrast with his predecessors, Xi has been heavily promoting traditional Chinese culture as part of what he calls “the Chinese Dream.”

The Chinese government hopes that Chinese medicine will gain global acceptance alongside Western medicine, according to Hernandez.

Some environmentalists were shocked by China’s decision last month to lift the ban on tiger bones and rhino horns, partly because it appeared to be a step backward from a widely applauded Chinese decision in 2016 to ban all imports of elephant ivory.

One of the strongest statements on the lifting of the import ban came from the Swiss-based World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which said in a statement that the move would have “devastating consequences” and would be an “enormous setback” to efforts to protect the animals in the wild.

The WWF said that even if restricted to antiques for cultural exchanges or research and healing use in hospitals, imports would “increase confusion by consumers and law enforcers as to which products are and are not legal, and would likely expand the market for other tiger and rhino products.”

The science journalist Rachel Nuwer, author of a the recently published book titled Poached: Inside the Dark World of Wildlife Trafficking said on Twitter that lifting the import ban could mean “game over” for the remaining tigers and rhinos in the world.

Meanwhile, the word appears to be spreading to people in nations capable of providing tiger bones to Chinese consumers that many Chinese are currently willing to pay high prices to obtain tiger bones.

Only a few days after China rescinded its ban on tiger bones and rhino horns, the wildlife department of the Indian state of West Bengal issued a red alert to counter the possible poaching of tigers.

Jose Louies of the Wildlife Trust of India told The Indian Express newspaper that inquiries from China seeking tiger bone deliveries had been pouring into India since the lifting of the ban on imports.

“Tiger bones are in high demand in China,” Louies said.

More than 2,000 Bengal tigers are believed to have survived in the wild in West Bengal, constituting today’s most numerous of all tiger subspecies.

The New York Times reported in a Nov. 4 dispatch from New Delhi published that closer monitoring of tigers, new technology, and stricter wildlife laws have led to a sharp increase in India’s tiger count, from 1,411 in 2006 to an estimated total of 2,500 today.

Still, as Rachel Nuwer has written, “it’s difficult to be optimistic.

Some 100,000 tigers roamed the world in the 19th century.

Fewer than 4,000—some say a few more than 3,800—remain in the wild today.

Rhinoceros horns are displayed in Hong Kong's Customs and Excise Department Offices, Nov. 15, 2011
Rhinoceros horns are displayed in Hong Kong's Customs and Excise Department Offices, Nov. 15, 2011
Rhinos caught in the crosshairs

But protecting rhinos after the lifting of the ban on rhinoceros horn imports could prove to be more challenging in the long run than protecting tigers.

Few rhinos are known to exist in captivity in China.

So the use of rhino horn for whatever purposes in China may encourage more illegal rhino horn imports from Africa, long a source for the underground trade in the horns.

Rachel Nuwer has written that rhino horns “have been used as antidotes and health tonics for millennia, but, thanks to skyrocketing demand, extinction looms for all five remaining rhino species.”

In Vietnam, where the demand has been highest, Nuwer reports in her new book that rhino horn “has morphed into a status symbol, hangover remedy, and miracle cancer cure.”

In the meantime, “China—whose market for rhino horn seems to be quickly growing to rival that of Vietnam—treats rhino horn carvings, jewelry, and whole specimens, as smart investments,” says Nuwer.

Unfortunately, South Africa, the main source for smuggled rhinos horns, has a reputation for corruption when it comes to monitoring illegal wildlife trafficking.

Criminal gangs in South Africa have been skilled at bribing officials and smuggling rhino horns into Asia.

And some of the gangs have now come up with a new twist on how to evade the detection of their illegal exports, which are mainly destined to be shipped to Vietnam and China.

In 2017, the nonprofit monitoring organization TRAFFIC revealed that criminal networks of Chinese origin operating in South Africa were processing rhino horn locally into beads, bracelets, bangles, and powder in order to evade detection.

“The emergence of a new market in China is particularly worrying development and poses increased challenges to already over-stretched enforcement agencies,” TRAFFIC said.

According to the National Geographic, South Africa is home to about 80 percent of the world’s rhinos, which are estimated to number roughly 29,000 in total.

In January of this year, the South African government released statistics showing that while poaching was down slightly in 2017, some 1,028 rhinos were nevertheless illegally killed last year.

The slight dip in poaching last year didn’t count for much, and still left the rhinos in critical danger.


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