China lifted a 25-year ban on the use of rhinoceros horns and tiger bones in medicine amid vociferous protests from environmental organizations, according to the New York Times.
The Chinese government stipulated that the newly legal animal parts can only be used by certified hospitals, and that horns and bones can only be acquired from animals raised in captivity. China has an estimated 6,500 tigers in captivity.
Animal rights groups, however, argue that the loosened restrictions will lead to a resurgence in black-market commerce and poaching of wild populations.
Further, rhino horns and tiger bones have no known medical benefits for humans. The suggestion that they have healing properties could fuel other medical misconceptions and is, regardless, a setback for science, according to these organizations.
“It is deeply concerning that China has reversed its 25-year-old tiger bone and rhino horn ban, allowing a trade that will have devastating consequences globally,” Margaret Kinnaird, WWF wildlife practice leader, said in a press release.
"China's experience with the domestic ivory trade has clearly shown the difficulties of trying to control parallel legal and illegal markets for ivory,” she added. “Not only could this lead to the risk of legal trade providing cover to illegal trade, this policy will also stimulate demand that had otherwise declined since the ban was put in place.”
Keeper Zachariah Mutai attends to Fatu, one of only two female northern white rhinos left in the world, in the pen where she is kept for observation, at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia county in Kenya on March 2, 2018.
China had banned the use of tiger bone and rhino horn in 1993, following pressure from animal rights groups and evidence that the animal parts in no way contributed to human health, according to the New York Times.
Experts who spoke with the Times say that the move to lift the ban is meant to bolster China’s traditional medicine industry, which is currently valued at around $100 billion.
“Rhino horn is used in Chinese medicine to treat a variety of conditions, including fevers, gout and food poisoning,” the Times notes. “Tiger bone, often turned into tiger bone wine or so-called glue, is thought to boost health, cure a range of ailments and increase virility for men.”
Poaching is already a major threat to these animals, which has helped drive down the global rhino population to just 30,000 and the tiger population to 3,900, compared to more than 500,000 and 100,000, respectively, a century ago.
The other primary forces depleting big game animals are habitat loss from human overdevelopment and climate change.
Additional demand in a massive market like China could drive these animals to perilous lows, according to WWF.
“With wild tiger and rhino populations at such low levels and facing numerous threats, legalized trade in their parts is simply too great a gamble for China to take," Kinnaird said. "This decision seems to contradict the leadership China has shown recently in tackling the illegal wildlife trade, including the closure of their domestic ivory market, a game changer for elephants warmly welcomed by the global community."
In 2016, China banned the import of ivory into the country and advocates believed that the country was on the way to becoming a champion of animal conservation.
This latest development indicates that label may have been premature.
“If this new policy ends in commercial sales and plays out similarly to when ivory was legalized, poaching will skyrocket as traders look to increased demand and the ability to launder horn,” Peter Knights, chief executive of WildAid, told the Washington Post.