Experts fear impact of China lifting trade ban on tiger and rhino parts

Burden of enforcement will hit poorer nations already struggling to cope, say conservationists

China’s decision to loosen a 25-year ban on the trade of tiger bones and rhino horn will put pressure on poor foreign nations as well as endangered global wildlife, according to experts on the illegal trade in animals.

Government officials in Beijing say the introduction of quotas for these body parts to be used in traditional Chinese medicine will allow them to manage legal demand, but conservationists say the move will cause more conflict in African and Asian countries that are trying to limit the illegal supply.

The risks of a knock-on effect are already evident in the case of pangolins, a scaly anteater that has become the most illegally-trafficked animal in the world.

Although cross-border sales of this increasingly rare creature have been prohibited under the convention on trade in endangered species (Cites) since 2016, Beijing’s mandarins continue to approve a legal domestic market for the scales, which are prescribed by Chinese medicine practitioners to help lactating mothers.

This pushes more of the burden for enforcement on poorer nations, who are often ill-equipped to cope.

There have been at least 20 interceptions of pangolin scales in the past two years. China and Vietnam are the main destination. Last month, six tonnes of pangolin scales and two tonnes of ivory from Nigeria were seized in Vietnam. In February, two tonnes of scales were confiscated from the residence of a Chinese national in Nigeria. All eight species of the mammal, which was once abundant, have been decimated. The Chinese and Malay pangolin are now critically endangered.

This week, the one country that flouted controls – the Democratic Republic of the Congo – was formally warned by Cites that it should cease issuing permits for sales of pangolin stockpiles to China.

“The quota system, or indeed any form of legal trade in China has not worked for pangolins – it has not relieved pressure on pangolins in the wild and has stimulated demand,” said Shruti Suresh of the Environmental Investigation Agency. Applying this same system for tigers and rhinos will be the death knell for those species, her colleagues have warned.

The World Wildlife Fund said a similar opening of Chinese markets for tiger and rhino would have “devastating consequences”.

Age of extinction

“Even if restricted to antiques and use in hospitals, this trade would increase confusion by consumers and law enforcers as to which products are and are not legal, and would likely expand the markets for other tiger and rhino products,” it said.

China has seesawed on environmental issues in recent years. Until recently it was winning international kudos for banning ivory sales and promoting renewable energy, but its carbon emissions have started to rise again, it is pushing destructive infrastructure projects in the Amazon and elsewhere, and it continues to be the major market for illegal wildlife.

Politicians and industry officials attend an event to mark the launch the Hong Kong’s nationwide campaign to promote Traditional Chinese Medicine earlier this month – an industry that uses ingredients from endangered species
Politicians and industry officials attend an event to mark the launch the Hong Kong’s nationwide campaign to promote traditional Chinese medicine. Photograph: Alex Hofford/EPA

The traditional medicine lobby is strong in China. President Xi Jinping has called it a “gem” of the country’s scientific heritage, pledged to give it equal government support with Western drugs, and lowered regulatory hurdles for drug approval.

A major beneficiary is likely to be country’s tiger farms, which contain more of the animals than are found in the wild across the world. The farm owners say their breeding programs can meet domestic demand for the penis and bones used in traditional medicine. But conservationists say they expand markets in which there is a premium for illegal wild animals, which are considered to have greater efficacy.

China is also using its growing international influence to promote this form of medicine overseas. For the first time, the World Health Organization will endorse these remedies by including a chapter on this subject in its next publication of the International Classification of Diseases. Diplomats from Beijing are also lobbying in Cites to loosen controls on the trade in other species used in traditional medicine.


Jonathan Watts

The GuardianTramp

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