By: Brook Larmer
The cryptic declaration from Beijing alarmed and mystified wildlife conservationists around the world. Reversing a 25-year-old ban on the trade of tiger bones and rhinoceros horns, the Chinese government announced in October that it would foster a “controlled” legal market in these goods. The move was unexpected, given that less than a year ago China took a major step in the fight against wildlife trafficking by doing precisely the opposite: banning the domestic sale of elephant ivory. Exotic-animal parts have become status symbols in parts of newly affluent China, but the demand for rhino horns and tiger bones is also driven by an ancient belief in their power to cure everything from fever to impotence.
As if to soften potential criticism, the State Council noted that the horns and bones would come not from wild rhinos and tigers but from existing stockpiles or animals bred in captivity. The reaction was still swift and harsh. Wildlife advocates pointed out that even a highly regulated trade in endangered-animal products can provide cover for continued trafficking; it can also unleash fresh demand that is satisfied by only the killing of more endangered animals in the wild. “This new policy would open the floodgates to the illegal trade,” says Leigh Henry, wildlife policy director at the World Wildlife Fund in Washington. “Wild rhino and tiger populations are at such low levels that there is no wiggle room. If it goes wrong, that’s it. The species are not coming back.”
In November, unexpectedly, China seemed to back down. A government usually impervious to criticism postponed its plan in the face of the growing uproar from environmental groups, the United Nations and signatories to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. For now, the government is keeping in place its “three strict bans”: on the import and export of rhinos, tigers and their byproducts; on their sale; and on the medical use of rhino horns and tiger bones. The State Council order has not been rescinded, however, and wildlife conservationists know that the potent economic forces driving the wildlife trade are not going away anytime soon.
Behind China’s Hamlet moment — to ban or not to ban — lies a deeper question: Why would Beijing push a policy that undermines President Xi Jinping’s oft-stated ambition to build an “ecological civilization”? Over the past few years, China has tried to refashion itself as a responsible global leader on climate change and environmental issues. It has also become a champion of wildlife conservation. China’s total ban on the sale of ivory, a widely applauded move designed to help protect elephants, took effect at the end of 2017. This decade, Chinese consumption of shark fins has dropped by 80 percent. A campaign by the wildlife-advocacy group WildAid ran on Chinese digital media, keying in on the fact that rhino horns provide no more health benefits than other sources of keratin by showing a string of Chinese celebrities — all biting their fingernails. All this progress, though, can’t offset China’s central role in stoking the illegal wildlife trade.
With estimated total revenues of up to $23 billion a year, wildlife trafficking is now considered the world’s fourth-most-profitable criminal trade after drugs, weapons and human trafficking. Even with China’s ivory ban, at least 20,000 elephants are poached each year for their tusks — 55 dead elephants a day. More than 7,000 African rhinos have been slaughtered for their horns in the past decade. The rate of poaching for tigers and rhinos has slowed, and the price of rhino horn — not long ago almost twice as expensive as gold — has dropped by two-thirds, according to WildAid. But the gains are fragile, the dangers ever-present. In Namibia, investigators told me that criminal networks are plundering animals, like colonies of brilliantly hued carmine bee eaters and families of pangolin, the scaly anteater that is the most trafficked mammal on the planet. Almost all are destined for China.
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WildAid is a non-profit organization with a mission to end the illegal wildlife trade in our lifetimes. While most wildlife conservation groups focus on protecting animals from poaching, WildAid primarily works to reduce global consumption of wildlife products such as elephant ivory, rhino horn and shark fin soup. With an unrivaled portfolio of celebrity ambassadors and a global network of media partners, WildAid leverages more than $218 million in annual pro-bono media support with a simple message: When the Buying Stops, the Killing Can Too.
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