The Chinese authorities appear to have backtracked from a recent policy announcement that could have paved the way for commercial trade in products from captive-bred tigers and rhinos and put these vulnerable animals at increased risk of poaching.

The announcement, which was circulated on Chinese Government websites on 29th October 2018, stated that under the ‘special circumstances’, rhino horns and tiger bones from farmed animals may be used in medical research or in ‘healing’, with powdered forms of rhino horn and bones from dead tigers being available for use by hospital doctors recognized by the State Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine. The announcement also gave the green light for the use of rhino and tiger products in research, and for the import and sale of ‘cultural relics’ when authorised by the relevant authorities. 

However, in an interview published on 12th November 2018, State Council Executive Deputy Secretary-General Ding Xuedong stated that implementation of the proposed new rules had been ‘postponed after study’, and emphasised 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’.

The apparent change in China’s position followed a public outcry which included an unusually rapid and robust response from the United Nations Environment Programme , which described any renegotiation of existing bans on tiger parts and rhino horn as ‘an extremely alarming development’, and emphasised that ‘tigers and rhinos need more protection, not less’.

Born Free’s Co-Founder and President, Will Travers OBE, said: “At a time when the world is looking to China to help reduce the devastating demand for wildlife products, and congratulating that country on its courage and foresight in introducing its domestic ivory ban, any talk of relaxing the rules and allowing trade in rhino and tiger products is deeply troubling. In the past decade, more than 7,000 rhinos have been killed by poachers for their horns in South Africa alone, and less than 4,000 tigers remain in the wild. If we are to save these keystone species from further declines, and possible extinction, we need to end the trade in their body parts, not stoke it. We welcome the postponement of the announced changes, urge the Chinese authorities to take heed of the UN’s response, and to not capitulate to the demands of those whose only motivation is to exploit these animals for profit.”

It seems likely that investors in China’s many tiger farms and private rhino owners in South Africa, who have been advocating for trade to be legalised so they can realise big profits through their exploitative activities, may have been encouraging China to relax its trading rules from behind the scenes.

Born Free believes that only by ending trade in wildlife can species be truly protected, and will continue to campaign for strict international and domestic trade bans on all rhino and tiger products.



China introduced a domestic ban on rhino horn and tiger bone in 1993, and both products were removed from the official Traditional Chinese Medicine pharmacopeia. However, a black-market trade in tiger body parts and products, and rhino horn has continued to thrive in China and some other Asian countries, fuelling the current poaching crisis. In China, at least 6,500 tigers are thought to exist on tiger farms, mostly in appalling conditions, from which skins for a little-known legal trade are sourced. The Environmental Investigation Agency has also uncovered evidence of a 2005 pilot scheme for the use of captive bred tigers for medicinal purposes, which indicates pre-existing lawful use of bone in China. It seems likely that those who have invested heavily in such facilities have been pressuring the Chinese authorities to relax the rules further so that they can generate higher returns.

In South Africa, around 300 private ranchers own a total of 7,000 rhinos. Some of these rhino owners are seeking a legal route to sell the horns ‘harvested’ from their living rhinos into international markets in order to generate potentially huge profits, and representatives of these private owners have been openly encouraging the Chinese authorities to relax the rules to allow their importation. Doing so would put wild rhinos across their range in both Africa and Asia at hugely increased risk, and provide a means by which rhino horn from wild rhinos could be laundered into trade. 

Rhino horn is used for medicinal and recreational use, and increasingly as an investment, and tigers are cruelly exploited for a macabre trade in their skin as luxury décor and for tiger bone wine, derived by steeping skeletons in vats of alcohol and sold as a prestigious gift.


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