China has lifted a 25-year ban on using rhino horns and tiger bones for medicine

At risk.
At risk.
Image: Reuters/Siegfried Modola
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Conservation efforts to protect Africa’s diminishing rhino population is taking a hit.

China’s state council has unexpectedly reversed a 25-year ban on using tiger bones and rhinoceros horn for scientific and medical purposes, while promising stricter controls. “Under the special circumstances, regulation on the sales and use of these products will be strengthened, and any related actions will be authorized, and the trade volume will be strictly controlled,” a statement by the council read.

The ban was originally put in place in 1993 after China joined the Convention on Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, an international pro-conservation alliance. There have also been efforts urging traditional medicine practitioners to stop using parts of endangered animals. In 2010, the Chinese Medicine Societies removed rhino horn and tiger bone from its list of approved products for patients. The use of the animal parts is rooted in cultural beliefs in their healing power even though there are no proven medicinal benefits.

While China’s state council says rhino horns and tiger bones used for research and healing “can only be obtained from farmed rhinos and tigers,” conservationists argue that it will be difficult to determine the source of the animal parts.

In a  statement, Margaret Kinnaird, head of wildlife at World Wildlife Fund says the reversal of the ban “will have devastating consequences globally.” Those fears mainly lie in the possibility that the creation of a legal market for the animal parts will offer animal trafficking rings and poachers cover for their illicit operations.

That danger is especially high in Africa where rhino populations have sharply depleted. For instance, due to factors including poaching, there are only two northern white rhinos left in the world, forcing scientists to explore artificial insemination as a means to save the species from extinction. Other efforts to protect the dwindling rhino population across the continent have included relocating them to Australia to create an “insurance population” and having snipers protect them from poachers.

China’s turnaround is very much at odds with its recent conservation policies though. Last year, in a globally heralded move, it banned ivory trade, requiring public displays to be authorized and mandating shop owners to turn in licenses to trade ivory.

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