Good News from Beijing: China has decided to postpone a plan to lift a ban on imports of tiger bones and rhino horns.
In a sharp policy reversal on Nov. 12, facing protests from conservation groups, China postponed plans unveiled in October to modify its 1993 ban to allow use for medical research and other special purposes.
For the time being, China will continue to strictly ban the import, export, the sale, purchase, transport, and use in medicines of rhinos, tigers and their byproducts.
“A ban would potentially decrease demand and make poaching more difficult,” says John Gruetzner, the managing director of a Toronto-based, Asian-focused investment advisory group.
“And a ban would certainly make buying the bones and horns more risky and expensive to smuggle and sell,” says Gruetzner, who also advises pro bono a number of conservation groups.
But a number of experts say that regardless of whether a ban is imposed or lifted, an underground trade in tiger bones and rhino horns is likely to continue.
The implementation of a law or a ban in China can often prove difficult, partly due to widespread corruption.
This includes bribes paid to government and Party officials, according to Minxin Pei, a China expert at Claremont McKenna College in California.
In a book published in 2016 titled “China’s Crony Capitalism,” Pei meticulously documented the ways in which Chinese Communist Party officials and their relatives collude with Chinese businessmen to enrich themselves.
While President Xi Jin-ping’s anti-corruption drive has succeeded in sending a large number of high-ranking officials to prison, lower-level corruption is systemic and more difficult to stamp out.
The underground trade in both tiger bones and rhino horns has proven to be a profitable illegal business, driven by a high demand from China’s growing middle class.
Some of the wealthiest members of the middle-class regard tiger bone parts and pelts both as status symbols and as useful for their supposed medicinal value.
No scientific evidence
Tiger bone powder, sometimes made into tiger-bone wine, is believed to help cure everything from liver and kidney diseases to eczema, epilepsy, baldness, toothaches, and joint pain.
No scientific evidence has been presented to verify any medical or healing value provided either by tiger bones or rhino horns.
But it doesn’t seem to matter to avid consumers that leading medical practitioners in China have discouraged the use of powder made from tiger bones or rhino horns for healing purposes.
More than 500,000 traditional medical practitioners constitute an influential interest group in China.
And they appear to have the support of President Xi Jinping, who has used Chinese traditional medicine as a force to expand China’s overseas influence, according to The New York Times.
A recent issue of The Economist provides an example: From Dakar, Senegal, the magazine reports that “Chinese medicine is on the rise in Africa.”
According to the magazine, in one makeshift clinic located in a house in central Dakar there’s something for everyone. Teas for kidney problems, creams for aches, pills for infertility, and four pills claiming to help men with infertility.
In the 1950s, Chairman Mao Zedong instigated the killing of Chinese tigers in campaigns to rid the countryside of wide-ranging, cattle-raiding tigers.
As the Reuters news agency has reported, thousands of tigers were killed in these campaigns under which bounties were paid to hunters for tiger pelts.
Once Mao decided to halt the campaigns, many tigers were reduced to surviving in dismal cages and suffered from inbreeding and lower birthrates, according to Reuters.
As the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) has reported, in 1986 tigers born in American zoos were shipped to China with the aim of starting a program to conserve the species.
The tigers would form the basis for a new captive breeding program.
Commerce before conservation
They became the founding population of China’s first government-sanctioned commercial tiger farms.
But they also became for-profit organizations designed not so much to protect the tigers as to slaughter many of them to produce bones for the traditional medicine industry.
Some of the tigers have also served as tourist attractions, where Chinese tourists can view them living in cramped enclosures.
According to the EIA, some 5,000 to 6,000 tigers now live in more than 200 facilities across China.
EIA has done extensive investigative work documenting the conditions in some of these tiger farms.
Captive tigers are also kept in smaller facilities, from “zoos” to circuses and backyard facilities.
Many are kept in cramped enclosures with little to provide them with mental stimulation, and some exhibit signs of several mental and physical distress, the EIA says.
Serious deformities suggest that debilitating inbreeding has occurred.
EIA says that “cruel restraining techniques” allow customers to pose for pictures atop sedated tigers.
Under China’s now postponed plan to lift a ban on imports of tiger bones and rhino horns for purposes of research and healing, tiger farms would be strictly regulated.
But some environmentalists are skeptical of this commitment, given the high profits that can be made through the underground trade.
Over the years the tiger farms have been used as cover to launder tiger parts for sale to customers willing to pay high prices for them.
Gilbert M. Sape, a campaigner with World Animal Protection, an advocacy group based in London, welcomed China’s decision to postpone lifting the ban on tiger and rhino products.
But he said that keeping a ban is “the only way we stand a chance of protecting the future survival of these incredible animals that are already in decline.”
Meanwhile, wild tigers in China have been hunted down to the point where only a few dozen appear to have survived.
EIA has reported that a tiny population of tigers in the wild survive near China’s border with Russia, with estimates of their numbers ranging from seven to 27.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin admires tigers and has supported programs to protect the estimated 500 Siberian tigers which have survived extinction in his country.
Possible long-term solutions
One possible solution for China would be a strengthening of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an agreement that has been ratified by more than 180 countries.
In 2007, participant countries at a CITES conference agreed on a decision that tigers should not be bred for trade in their parts or in products, such as tiger-bone wine.
In 2010, at a “Tiger Summit” held in Saint Petersburg, Russia, then China’s then-premier Wen Jiabao spoke of “ending the tiger trade.”
But that pledge was never fulfilled.
John Gruetzner of Intercedent suggests that as a holding measure, CITES get upgraded to pledge that “no wild animal meat, skin, part, or by-product” be allowed to leave any country or be imported by any country.
This, he said, should be the diplomatic goal of the European Union, Japan, Canada, Australia and other G-20 nations.
But he suggests that getting U.S. President Donald Trump or China’s President Xi Jinping to sign on to this might prove difficult.
When it comes to rhino horn imports, criminal gangs in South Africa profiting from the illegal trade may pose the biggest challenge.
While the demand in China for rhino horn is now down from a high point in 2014, this is still a highly profitable trade for African as well as Chinese smugglers.
Wealthy Chinese have come to regard rhino horn powder as a remedy for a variety of maladies, ranging from hangovers to cancer.
But much as is the case with tiger bone powder, no one over the years has produced scientific evidence to support this belief.
In a 15-page report published last year by San Francisco-based WildAid, investigators concluded that while the awareness of the danger of rhino extinction in China has grown, China remains the main source of demand for rhino horn imports.
Heavy trafficking of rhino horns takes place through Vietnam into China, the nonprofit organization says.
Vietnam has strengthened its wildlife trafficking crime laws, but lacks effective implementation.
At the same time, pervasive corruption persists in South Africa along with a failure to prosecute poaching and smuggling kingpins.
Leaders of criminal syndicates involved in the wildlife trade are known to the authorities but have largely gone unpunished, WildAid says.
WildAid suggests several possible solutions
These include among other things:
· Using existing laws to arrest, prosecute, and punish prominent sellers and end users in China and Vietnam, and not just smugglers.
· Arresting and punishing organizers and kingpins in South Africa and Mozambique, and not just poachers.
· Cracking down with an anti-corruption drive in parks and reserves in South Africa.
· Establishing a “wildlife court” in South Africa to strengthen judicial effectiveness in dealing with wildlife crime.
· Improving investigative capacities and speeding up prosecutions.
All of this is easier said than done, but it helps to have goals.
Dan Southerland is RFA's founding executive editor.