I was shocked when China reversed its 25-year-old ban on the medicinal and cultural use of rhino horn and tiger bone last month. This came out of the blue and was especially puzzling given China’s new image as a conservation and environmental leader after banning ivory, reducing shark fin consumption and tackling climate change. Why would the country now go back on these protections for tigers and rhinos?
It seems no one really knows why. Thankfully, common sense prevailed and the new regulations have been “postponed after study”. The strict ban on the sale and use of rhino horn and tiger parts remains in effect. Now, the global community must urge the Chinese government to show this latest reversal is not simply a PR stunt and unequivocally state its support for keeping the original ban in place permanently. They should do this for three reasons.
First, China has rightly received praise for its leadership in reducing shark fin imports by 80% in recent years and closing the world’s largest market for ivory with its strict ban on ivory sales. All that goodwill would have been lost in an instant had this disastrous trade been re-opened. Now that that the initial outcry has died down, China should demonstrate that they will not waiver from their commitment to protecting wild rhinos and tigers.
Second, and I know this from personal experience, always listen to your customers. After years of awareness-raising and campaigning alongside global conservation champions like WildAid and others, we’re seeing evidence that demand for wildlife products is declining. Rhino horn prices in Asia have now dropped by two-thirds to roughly half the price of gold. In South Africa, which has lost thousands of rhinos to poachers since 2008, poaching decreased by 25 percent in the first six months of 2018. Many potential consumers now understand that rhino horn is nothing more than keratin, like our fingernails. And many no longer believe the outrageous claims that it can cure diseases from cancer to erectile dysfunction. In fact, China removed rhino horn from its pharmacopeia in 1993 – progress that would be reversed if China endorses the medicinal efficacy of rhino horn by dismantling the ban.
Third, if China wants to export Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) around the world, they should make it clear that they will not use animal parts, especially those from threatened or endangered species. It has long been shown that products like rhino horn, tiger bone, and pangolin scales have no unique medicinal properties. There are hundreds of sustainable alternatives within TCM that do not require slaughter and suffering. By encouraging effective and available alternatives, China can promote a more sustainable TCM to a global consumer base.
I’ve long argued that the illegal wildlife trade must be addressed along the entire supply chain. The public can play its part by refusing products with rhino horn or tiger bone. But we should also urge the one country with the greatest potential purchasing power to decidedly take its place as a leader in conservation. By unequivocally telling the global community that the ban is permanent, China will send a clear signal that it is sincere about wildlife conservation. They should say it immediately. And they should say it clearly.