China has legalized the “controlled” use of rhino horn and tiger bone for medical use and cultural purposes in the country, the government announced on Oct. 29.

Rhino horn and tiger bone for medical purposes can only be obtained from farmed rhinos and tigers, the announcement said, while powdered forms of horn and bones from dead tigers can be used “in qualified hospitals by qualified doctors recognized by the State Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine.” The government has also allowed the trade in rhino and tiger products that qualify as “cultural relics.” Conservation groups are concerned that this decision could have far-reaching consequences for populations of both endangered animals.

“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,” the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) said in a statement.


Credit: Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay

A female white rhino in Kenya.

China banned the trade in tiger bone and rhino horn in 1993, and removed both products from the list of medical ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine’s pharmacopoeia and curriculum – although a black market for these products continues to thrive. The World Federation of Chinese Medicine Societies, a nonprofit organization that takes decisions on what can be used in traditional Chinese medicine, also urged its members to not use endangered wildlife parts and to look for substitutes. Reversing the 25-year ban and legalizing the trade could provide cover for illegal activities, conservationists worry.

“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,” the WWF said.

Iris Ho, senior specialist for wildlife program and policy at the Humane Society International, added that the move “sets up what is essentially a laundering scheme for illegal tiger bone and rhino horn to enter the marketplace and further perpetuate the demand for these animal parts.”

“This is a devastating blow to our ongoing work to save species from cruel exploitation and extinction, and we implore the Chinese government to reconsider,” Ho said.


Credit: Reuters / Simon Dawson

A officer holds a package containing crushed tiger bones, seized by the UK Border Force at Heathrow Airport at Custom House near Heathrow in London.

In its announcement, the Chinese government said it would mandate “clearly recording the current inventory of products and those in individual collections.” Illegally obtained products would be confiscated, it said, and all illegal trade would be subject to severe crackdowns.

However, the decision to allow some domestic trade in rhino and tiger parts contradicts China’s recent moves on combating the illegal wildlife trade. In January this year, for example, China announced that it had shut its legal domestic ivory markets, fully implementing its 2016 ivory trade ban.

Read Next: China's Ivory Ban Pushes Illegal Trade to Neighboring Countries, Study Shows

The News Lens has been authorized to publish this article from Mongabay, an environmental science and conservation news and information site. The original article can be found here.

TNL Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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