In a controversial and surprising move, China announced on Monday that it will reverse a decades-old ban on the use of rhinoceros horns and tiger bones in medicine.
"This devastating reversal by China runs completely counter to the image of wildlife champion the world had come to expect with China's ivory trade ban, which was such a positive development for the world's elephants".
The policy revision also runs counter to moves by traditional Chinese medicine groups to throw their weight behind conservation.
The State Council, China's Cabinet, said in a policy directive that it would legalise the use of rhino horns and tiger bones for "medical research or in healing", but only by certified hospitals and doctors, and only from rhinos and tigers raised in captivity, excluding zoo animals.
The statement also said nothing about regulating the farming of tigers and rhinos, but added that the central government "urged governments at all levels to improve publicity activities for protecting rhinos and tigers to help the public actively boycott any illegal purchases".
A black market for the ingredients, which can fetch soaring prices, has continued to thrive in China despite the 1993 ban and perennial ad campaigns by conservation groups featuring Chinese celebrities such as Yao Ming, the former professional basketball star. At that time, the government had said these products shouldn't be used in the medical field and that alternatives should be developed through research.
Mr Xi has used Chinese medicine as a way to expand China's overseas influence, and his government has promoted it in places such as Zimbabwe and Nepal. Chinese farms have over 6,500 tigers and an unknown number of rhinos.
Thousands of tigers are bred in multiple farms around China, while the import of rhinos for farms was allowed recently.
Those fears mainly lie in the possibility that the creation of a legal market for the animal parts will offer animal trafficking rings and poachers cover for their illicit operations. No proof of medical benefits from rhino horn has been found either. But conservationists say all this is a hoax. 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. The animals, kept in small spaces, attract tourists in their prime, and are then killed for the luxury and medicinal markets.
An estimated 3,890 tigers remain alive in the wild, according to a report presented during the Third Asia Ministerial Conference on Tiger Conservation in 2016.
"It 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", Ho said. The legality of trade will be a veneer behind which the traffickers can practice their trade fearlessly, the experts say.
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