Yesterday (29th October), the government of China announced that it will permit “strictly controlled” commercial trade in tiger bone and rhino horn from farmed animals for medical, scientific and cultural purposes.

This surprising and highly controversial move reverses China’s 25-year ban on trade in rhino horn and tiger products, and contradicts the decision in 2010 by the World Federation of Chinese Medicine Societies to remove tiger and rhino products from the approved list of traditional medicines. It also seriously undermines positive actions by the Chinese government in recent years to combat wildlife trafficking, and flies in the face of a legally binding decision taken in 2007 by the Conference of the Parties for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) – to which China is a signatory – that tigers should not be bred for trade in their parts and derivatives and tiger farms should be phased out.

“This move has grave implications for the survival prospects of rhino and tiger species in their range states,” said Dr Rebecca Drury, Senior Technical Specialist for Wildlife Trade at Fauna & Flora International (FFI). “Legal trade can provide a cover for illegal sales, making it much more difficult to control illegal trade and undermining enforcement efforts. It can also serve to fuel consumer demand for tiger and rhino horn products”.

The reason for China’s announcement is unconfirmed. However, there are increasing numbers of tiger farms in China, which are expensive to run. As such, there has been growing pressure on the Chinese government to allow regulated trade in farmed tiger products. Given the number of captive-bred tigers in China, permitting trade in farmed tiger products is likely to lead to a significant commercial trade in tiger parts, with potentially devastating consequences for wild tigers, as well as for other big cat species. There have also been reports that China is importing rhinos with a view to commercial farming.

The western black rhino was officially declared extinct in 2010 due to poaching fuelled by demand for its horn. Poaching for rhino horn remains a critical threat to surviving rhino species. It is estimated that fewer than 4,000 tigers remain in the wild, and subspecies such as the Sumatran tiger, which is thought to number fewer than 500 individuals, are perilously close to extinction.

This reactionary decision seriously undermines ongoing efforts to protect these critically endangered animals, including the groundbreaking and (until now) successful anti-poaching work of FFI and its partners in the remaining tiger strongholds such as Sumatra’s Kerinci Seblat National Park.

FFI urges China – as the country that will host the 2020 Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity – to continue to show leadership in efforts to combat wildlife trafficking and uphold its ban on trade in tiger bone and rhino horn, which has been so crucially important in helping to protect tigers and rhinos in the wild.

This potentially devastating news means that now, more than ever, Sumatran tigers urgently need your support.

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