By Brendan Moyle 03/11/2018

China recently opted to end its 25 year ban on the domestic trade in tiger and rhino parts. These products were banned from use in 1993 and mention of their application in TCM was removed from official publications. This was done mostly under pressure from Western governments and NGOs, who saw this legal trade as a threat to wild populations of these species. The move has generated swift responses from several NGOs, as reported in the AAP piece published in NZ on Wednesday.

As one of the few people who have actually studied the illegal market in tiger parts in China I felt a corrective to much of this article was warranted:

China reverses ban on trade in tiger, rhino products

China says it will allow trading in products made from endangered tigers and rhinos under “special circumstances,” reversing a previous ban and bringing condemnation from conservation groups.

Note that that of the three NGOs cited in the article, only one is a proper conservation organisation. The Humane International Society is an animal rights group. EIA investigates environmental crimes.

A notice from the Cabinet issued Monday avoided mentioning any change in the law, saying instead that it would “control” the trade and that rhino horns and tiger bones could only be obtained from farmed animals for use in “medical research or in healing.”

“Under the special circumstances, regulation on the sales and use of these products will be strengthened, and any related actions will be authorised, and the trade volume will be strictly controlled,” the statement said.

More detail on the decision can be found here. The motivation for this trade is easy to understand. After being assured for 25 years the domestic ban would assist the recovery of tigers and rhinos, evidence suggests it has not. Tigers have continued their decline over most of their range, whilst rhinos are subject to extraordinary poaching levels. Most of the two African rhino species are found in South Africa and Namibia. That their populations have remained robust in these states has much to do with their Herculean efforts in anti-poaching efforts (which may well be unsustainable given how much it draws down conservation budgets for other issues).

In short, China’s decision to sacrifice the domestic trade in these parts for medicine has not produced the conservation outcomes that were anticipated. Abandoning the market to criminals under the optimistic assumption this would reduce demand for these parts has simply not worked. Being skeptical it will work is justifiable. There is nothing wrong with wanting to try something new.  Adding some competition back to the market could be effective.

Tiger bone and rhino horn are used in traditional Chinese medicine, despite a lack of evidence of their effectiveness in treating illness and the effect on wild populations. Chinese demand for ivory is also blamed as a driver behind the slaughter of African elephants, despite Beijing banning all trade in ivory starting from this year.

It seems moot talking about the lack of effectiveness when the issue is the actual demand. For instance, the strategy of informing Chinese consumers that rhino horn has no pharmacological properties has been ongoing for decades. There is absolutely no evidence that this has reduced demand.

I dislike this paragraph above for a number of reasons. First, rhino horn is also used in carvings and Vietnam appears to be a crucial consumer-state for rhino horn as well. Tiger bone is used as a treatment for bone-diseases. But tigers are poached for many reasons. The skins are in demand in Central Asian markets (which should include Tibet). The teeth, claws and other curios are in demand in original range states. And tigers also are not popular with many local populations that share landscapes with tiger populations. Tigers kill livestock and sometimes people. There is no simple relationship between traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and the size of rhino and tiger populations.

The aside on ivory is gratuitous. A recent paper of mine on the illegal trade in ivory identified many of the consequences of the GFC as the catalyst for the increase in the ivory poaching. That would put banking system and its regulation prior to 2008 as the main driver…oops.

No reason was given for the lifting of the ban, which was implemented in 1993 amid a global push to protect fast-disappearing endangered species.

Is it necessary to spell out that this 25 year old experiment in banning trade has not succeeded?

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.”

Perhaps actually asking someone from China or at the very least, knows about the regulatory system in China could have been tried? Basically the domestic sale of animal ingredients as medicine in China is subject to regulations by two different bodies. One is the wildlife authorities (included in the State Forest and Grasslands Administration) and the other is the medical authorities. Anyone trading in such parts have to be compliant with both sets of regulations. The system already exists.

The World Wildlife Fund said the move to overturn the ban would have “devastating consequences globally” by allowing poachers and smugglers to hide behind legalised trade.

“With wild tiger and rhino populations at such low levels and facing numerous threats, legalised trade in their parts is simply too great a gamble for China to take,” Margaret Kinnaird, WWF wildlife practice leader, was quoted as saying in a statement from the Washington-based organisation.

“This decision seems to contradict the leadership China has shown recently in tackling the illegal wildlife trade,” Kinnaird said.

Yet when a quasi-legal trade in rhino-horn occurred prior to 2008 from Southern Africa in the form of hunting trophies, poaching levels were much lower and sustainable, without the massive expenditure on reducing poaching. The bad guys don’t need the legal trade to operate behind. For instance, the internet now offers numerous ways for buyers and sellers to interact. Whether it is WeChat or the Dark Web, the bad guys simply have no need to utilise the legal system as a front. Indeed, if the preference for wild parts really does exist, then the bad guys are better off selling wild parts outside the legal system to get the highest price. If they use the legal system they’d have to accept the lower price that farmed parts receive.

Despite the former ban, China has long allowed tiger farms, which harvest the bones of dead animals, and tacitly allows their sale for alleged medicinal purposes, according to a study by the Environmental Investigation Agency, a British nonprofit.

Yeah, I said that back in 2009 in my criminology paper on the illegal trade in tiger parts. There are two major farms in China. One is the farm in Harbin in the northern province of Heilong Jiang. It is affiliated with the State Forest and Grasslands Administration. The other is in Guilin, in the southern province (or autonomous region) of Gunagxi. It is not affiliated with the SFGA and is the favourite site for anti-farming advocates.

Operators are also believed to be investigating the possibility of farming rhinos in the country, although, unlike tigers, those are not native to China.

In 2014 I had the chance to visit a rhino farm near Kunming in the Yunnan province. Just how much research went into this news article? Technically African rhinos are not native to China, but Southern China historically had some Asian rhino species in its range.

The EIA called the overturning of the ban a “brazen and regressive move which drastically undermines international efforts for tiger and rhino conservation.”

“At a single stroke, China has shattered its reputation as a growing leader in conservation following its domestic ban on the sale of ivory at the start of the year,” the group said.

Complying with what various Western NGOs insist should be done, is not really leadership.

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. Thousands of tigers are also believed to have been bred on Chinese farms where conditions for the animals are often criticised as dire.

Thousands of tigers are in farms, but mostly two of them. As someone who regularly inspects the Harbin farm on a semi-annual basis, I don’t think this description is accurate. I believe that the Guilin farm has issues, but have not visited it in many years.  Let me point out that the less than 4000 tigers in the wild now, are a lot less than what we had in 1993.

Tiger at the Harbin Farm
Breeding Pen at Harbin. These open to individual exercise area

Studies put the population of wild rhinos at less than 30,000, while poaching is reducing that number drastically each year.

Sort of. With some 25,000 rhinos in the two main Southern African countries, poaching levels in overall term are unsustainable but not enough to reduce the populations drastically. Rhinos tend to make more rhinos as well so the new births are offsetting a large chunk of these losses.

Humane Society International also criticised China’s move, saying that “the trade it engenders will inevitably increase pressure on animals in the wild.”

Well of course HSI doesn’t approve. But this is an Animal rights group that has no particular expertise in the illegal trade in tigers.

“With this announcement, the Chinese government has signed a death warrant for imperiled rhinos and tigers in the wild who already face myriad threats to their survival,” Iris Ho, the group’s senior specialist for wildlife program and policy, was quoted as saying in a statement.

The voice of sober reason- apparently.

“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.

It beggars belief why so many people think the bad guys prefer the legal trade system to traffic their goods, when they have so many other options available. This is the remark of someone who simply does not understand how wildlife black markets work. The bad guys have had 25 years to develop ways to trade poached tiger and rhino parts that are independent of the legal market. It’s how they’ve been doing it for a long time, and the web is making it even easier.


Trying to reduce poaching and illegal trade is a laudable goal. Yet to insist we keep doing the same thing year after year when its failure is all too apparent seems the height of madness. Sometimes what works in conservation is not what we want to work. And in that respect, trying new ideas out is actual Conservation leadership.

0 Responses to “Trading tiger and rhino products: Conservation Threat or Innovation?”

  • Very well written and sound arguments put forward.

    For the future survival of our Rhino it’s time we start the legal trade again.