China defends decision to ease rhino, tiger parts ban

3 min

Beijing (AFP)

China on Tuesday defended its controversial decision to ease a 25-year ban on trading tiger bones and rhinoceros horns after conservationists warned that the government had effectively signed a "death warrant" for the endangered species.

The State Council, China's cabinet, unexpectedly announced on Monday that it would allow the sale of rhino and tiger products under "special circumstances".

Those include scientific research, sales of cultural relics, and "medical research or in healing".

The country's 1993 ban on rhino horn and tiger bone products did not consider the "reasonable needs of reality", such as those from scientific research, education, and medical treatment, foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said Tuesday.

China has also improved its "law enforcement mechanism" and plans to step up efforts to crack down on illegal wildlife trade, Lu said at a regular press briefing.

Wildlife campaigners fear that the new rules could fuel the illegal trade and further put the animals at risk of being poached.

"With this announcement, the Chinese government has signed a death warrant for imperilled rhinos and tigers in the wild who already face myriad threats to their survival," Iris Ho, senior wildlife programme specialist at Humane Society International, said in a statement.

But the State Council said the trade volume will be "strictly controlled", with any sale outside of authorised use to remain banned.

The newly sanctioned areas of trade will also be highly regulated.

Only doctors at hospitals recognised by the State Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine will be allowed to use powdered forms of rhino horn and tiger bones.

Tourism and cultural heritage authorities will also have to approve any rhino and tiger products that are used for "temporary cultural exchange".

The council said only farmed rhinos and tigers can be used, excluding those raised in zoos.

But activists were not reassured by the regulations.

Farmed wildlife are "born into a miserable life of suffering, and then killed for use in medicinal products. It's a total outrage," said Kate Nustedt, a programme director at World Animal Protection, an animal welfare non-profit.

China has made efforts to crack down on the sale of illegal wildlife products such as ivory in recent years.

The country's ban on ivory sales went into effect in December 2017 -- an attempt to rein in what used to be the product's largest market in the world.

A partial ban on ivory had already resulted in an 80 percent decline in ivory seizures entering China and a 65 percent drop in domestic prices for raw ivory, according to a report last year by state media Xinhua.

Ivory is seen as a status symbol in China. Other illegal wildlife products, such as pangolin scales, continue to see demand for their supposed medicinal properties.