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Why Did China Just Lift a 25-Year Ban on Rhino Horn?

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[UPDATE Nov 13, 2018]: CNN is reporting that the Chinese government has “flip-flopped” on its controversial decision to legalize trade in tiger and rhino products, quoting State Council spokesman Ding Xuedong as telling news agency Xinhua: “I would like to reiterate that the Chinese government has not changed its stance on wildlife protection and will not ease the crackdown on illegal trafficking and trade of rhinos, tigers and their byproducts and other criminal activities.” Find CNN’s report here.

In a move that has surprised many onlookers, two days ago the Chinese government rescinded a ban on the trade of products made from rhinoceros and tiger that had been in place since 1993. Here’s an excerpt from an official statement released on October 29 by the State Council, the highest organ of national administration in China:

Rhinos, tigers and their related products used in scientific research, including collecting genetic resource materials, will be reported to and approved by authorities. Specimens of skin and other tissues and organs of rhinos and tigers can only be used for public exhibitions.

Rhino horns and tiger bones used in medical research or in healing can only be obtained from farmed rhinos and tigers, not including those raised in zoos. Powdered forms of rhino horn and bones from dead tigers can only be used in qualified hospitals by qualified doctors recognized by the State Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Read the full statement here.

This is a stark reversal from China’s recent position as a global leader in curbing the practice of rhinoceros and tiger poaching, an epidemic driven disproportionately by demand in China and, to a lesser extent, Vietnam.

Several wildlife conservation organizations with a footprint in China, such as WildAid, TRAFFIC, and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), have made the trade in rhino horn, usually imported from Africa and sold illegally in China, a primary focus. WildAid’s approach is to lower demand by releasing anti-poaching PSAs starring high-profile Chinese celebrities such as Yao Ming — one can see WildAid’s banners and videos in many train stations and airports throughout China — while working to develop effective policies with government institutions behind the scenes. In an interview with RADII last year, WildAid program director John Baker spoke to the importance of “work[ing] closely with the government in an effort to strengthen policies, regulations and enforcement,” adding:

Our campaigns in China and Vietnam have already resulted in significant changes in awareness levels and attitudes: with an increase of 28% in the number of people in China who think poaching is a serious or very serious threat to rhinos, from 74% in 2012 to 94.6% in 2017.

Both rhinoceros horn and tiger bone are ingredients that can historically be found in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) remedies — though modern practitioners find them of dubious medicinal value. Cultural relics in the form of sculpted rhinoceros horn are also covered in the new regulations:

Sales, import and export of products that are classified as cultural relics, and transporting them for temporary cultural exchanges will be authorized by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and the State Administration of Cultural Heritage.

This bit, taken together with the earlier line about rhino products now being legalized for “scientific research, including collecting genetic resource materials,” cuts into another approach that companies like Pembient and Ceratotech — both based in the US — have been developing for several years: lab-synthesizing “zero-range rhino horn” through methods including stem cell incubation, a method that requires no live animal. Matthew Markus of Seattle-based Pembient told RADII last year that he hopes his company’s product, which they project will hit the market by 2022, will turn rhino horn “from a niche material to a ubiquitous, environmentally-friendly bioplastic,” useful both as decorative material (“horn tiles covering whole walls”) and as an alternative to petroleum-based plastics.

In February 2016, WildAid petitioned the Obama administration to ban the biosynthesis of rhino horn, arguing that flooding the market for the substance with a synthetic alternative would increase overall demand. China’s new regulations would appear to place both the trade in real horn from farmed rhinos and the development synthetic alternatives based on genetic research under the strict control of the government.

Read more about the efforts of WildAid and a few startups attempting to market biosynthesized rhino horn as an alternative to hunted product:

NGOs and Biotech Startups Offer Different Solutions to Rhino Poaching

While a report from Chinese State newspaper Xinhua emphasizes the “strict control” China will exercise over the trade of rhinoceros and tiger products, and notes the government’s stated commitment to “better protection of rhinos and tigers” and “public education,” members of the wilderness preservation community have reacted swiftly with shock and outrage.

The WWF, an international NGO focused on the conservation and preservation of endangered species that has been active in China since 1980, was quick to issue an official statement condemning the decision:

WWF urgently calls on China to maintain the ban on tiger bone and rhino horn trade which has been so critical in conserving these iconic species. This should be expanded to cover trade in all tiger parts and products.

“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”, said Margaret Kinnaird, WWF Wildlife Practice Leader.

“Trade in tiger bone and rhino horn was banned in 1993. The resumption of a legal market for these products is an enormous setback to efforts to protect tigers and rhinos in the wild.

“China’s experience with the domestic ivory trade has clearly shown the difficulties of trying to control parallel legal and illegal markets for ivory. 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.”

Tom Baxter, a Greenpeace employee based in Beijing, also took to Twitter to voice concern about the timing of this abrupt move, coming less than one month before the 14th annual Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP-14), which will begin on November 10 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt.

The new trade regulation also comes on the heels of the first-ever China International Import Expo (CIIE), which runs from November 5-10 in Shanghai and has been described by Chinese leader Xi Jinping as “an important policy statement and action demonstrating China’s embrace of greater openness.” Several countries with the highest rates of rhino poaching, including South Africa and Kenya, will attend CIIE with trade delegations. “The CIIE offers an opportunity for South Africa to tap into the Chinese market,” an economic counselor from South Africa’s embassy in China told Yicai Global last month.

At this writing, the ramifications and specific policies that will come of the State Council’s recent statement remain to be seen. One conservation organization focused on rhino poaching and active in China contacted for this article said that they are requesting clarification about policy details from relevant authorities, and declined to comment at this time.

[UPDATE, 2018/11/02]: In an email interview, WildAid CEO Peter Knights tells RADII that his organization will share concerns about the new policy with relevant authorities, adding:

Only time will tell how this new policy will play out, but similar statements were made about the ivory trade to little avail. Since the announcement does not mention importing or exporting rhino horn or tiger parts, which would be in violation of CITES, Chinese tiger farms will likely be the financial beneficiaries.

The fear is that these new allowances will give cover to the illegal wildlife trade as well as send a message to the public that it is okay to consume these products stimulating poaching. If this 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 rhino horn and tiger parts.

We’ll update this space as new information becomes available.

Cover image: Rhinoceros wine vessel (206 BC–AD 9) at the National Museum of China (photo by the author)

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Josh Feola
Josh Feola is a Shanghai-based writer and musician, and RADII's Culture Editor. His coverage of Chinese music and art has appeared in The Wire, Dazed, Artsy, LEAP, Tiny Mix Tapes, and more. He's been active in China's underground music scene since 2010 via his booking platform pangbianr.com, and is a former member of Beijing bands Chui Wan, SUBS, and Vagus Nerve.

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