How to curb China's illegal wildlife trade, from tiger bones to totoaba bladders

A lot of the species that are most threatened on Earth right now are threatened because of demand for contraband animal products in China. Global collaboration and compromise may be key to solving the problem, explains Rachel Nuwer

Wednesday 28 November 2018 15:16
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Seized rhino horns and other animal parts in Kuala Lumpur: few ecosystems are not affected by the trade
Seized rhino horns and other animal parts in Kuala Lumpur: few ecosystems are not affected by the trade

Many of the creatures that share this planet with us may not be around much longer.

Since 1970, populations of thousands of animal species around the world have declined by 60 per cent on average, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). Habitat destruction, climate change and pollution are all driving those losses.

But so is the global illegal trade in wildlife. For species like tigers and rhinos, poaching is a primary threat to survival.

“Very few ecosystems are not affected by wildlife trade,” says Vincent Nijman, an anthropologist at Oxford Brookes University. “It directly impacts a very large number of species, and has a knock-on effect on many more species still.”

But, as Nijman points out, any solutions for tackling the illegal wildlife trade are unlikely to work without the involvement of one major player: China.

From ivory to pangolin scales, totoaba bladders to shark fins, the country has a ravenous appetite for wildlife products. As China’s economy and population have grown, so too has demand for animals and their parts, which are sought from southeast Asia, Africa, South America and the world’s oceans.

“A lot of the species that are most threatened on Earth right now are threatened because of demand in China,” says Chris Shepherd, executive director of Monitor, a not for profit group that works to reduce illegal wildlife trade. “China has to become a leader in fighting illegal wildlife trade, or else it’s not going to be a pretty future.”

The body of a three-day-old rhino killed by poachers in Kruger National Park, South Africa

Until recently, China seemed to have signed on to the cause. President Xi Jinping, who has pledged to turn the country into an “ecological civilisation”, stepped up seizures of contraband animal products and created a new national park to provide a haven for Siberian tigers. In January, Xi banned the domestic trade in ivory.

But lately China has sent conflicting signals. To the shock of officials and conservationists around the world, China announced in October that it would reopen the trade in rhino horn and tiger bone, reversing a 25-year domestic ban.

“This development came as a surprise to us, because China, at the moment, is leading in so many ways on the environment,” says Erik Solheim, executive director of the UN Environment Programme. “We should be stepping up protection for tigers and rhinos, not lowering it.”

China’s state council directed that rhino horn and tiger bone be limited to use in scientific research and in traditional Chinese medicine, practised by qualified doctors at certain hospitals.

Officials also pledged to strictly control trade, a reassurance that did little to assuage concerns that poaching was about to spiral even further out of control.

Indeed, just three days after China’s announcement, Jose Louies, chief of the wildlife crime control division at the Wildlife Trust of India, received a call from an informant who said that tiger traffickers had begun anticipating a price increase.

“Poachers keep their ears to the ground – they feel everything that is happening in the market,” Louies says. “It’s not a secret for them that all the tiger materials are going to China.”

Tiger bone and rhino horn are highly valued in Chinese medicine despite no proof of their effectiveness (Getty)

Following a global outcry, the state council this month reversed course and postponed implementation of the order. But the episode has left conservationists wary – not least because the history here is far from encouraging.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, also known as Cites, banned the international commercial trade of rhinos and most tigers in 1975. But for decades afterward, China permitted domestic sales of products made from these animals.

Rhino horn and tiger bone were smuggled into the country from abroad, and tiger farms were set up in the late 1980s – some with government backing – to breed big cats for bones, skins and parts. (Wild tigers had been mostly poached in China years earlier.)

In 1993, under the Pelly amendment, President Bill Clinton threatened China with sanctions for undermining the Cites treaty. China responded with a ban on rhino horn and tiger bone, and poaching declined significantly.

“By banning those products, the Chinese government made a significant contribution to conservation of rhinos and tigers over the past 20 years,” says Zhang Li, a field biologist at Beijing Normal University.

Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine quickly followed suit, replacing the banned materials with sustainable substitutes and removing tiger bone and rhino horn – which have no scientifically proven benefits – from textbooks and the pharmacopoeia.

“If the government’s intention by lifting this ban is to support Chinese medicine, the result is the opposite,” says Lixin Huang, executive director of the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in California.

She suspects that the decision was encouraged not by practitioners of traditional medicine, but by “those dealing in the business of profit-making” – tiger farmers.

Rather than shutter after the 1993 ban, tiger farms continued to grow and now house more than 6,000 captive animals. For more than a decade, China has expressed interest in domestic trade of its captive tigers’ parts.

In September Cites identified 36 Chinese tiger farms that seemed to be involved in illegal trade or held tigers in questionably excessive numbers.

But at a Cites meeting in Sochi, Russia, in October, Chinese officials strongly opposed the findings according to Heather Sohl, a chief adviser at WWF who attended the meeting.

Officials did not mention the country’s impending decision to reopen trade.

“China has quite often restricted progress on tackling tiger trade discussions we have at Cites,” Sohl says. The fact that officials questioned proposals to control tiger trade “wasn’t unusual and didn’t give us any insight that this was coming”.

Michael ’t Sas-Rolfes, a doctoral researcher at the University of Oxford who toured tiger farms at the invitation of the Chinese government in 2007, was not surprised.

“The only part of this that was completely unexpected for me was the timing,” he says. “The Chinese focus has always been more on conserving a species as a resource, not on the western focus of conserving a species in its habitat.”

Even as western countries have pushed for blanket bans on certain wildlife products, he continues, demand for those products in certain quarters of Asia has not fallen. Instead, illegal trade and the profits to be made from it have increased.

“I’m hoping that China’s move may serve as a bit of a wakeup call that the ‘just say no’ approach doesn’t work,” Sas-Rolfes says.

“The conversation on drugs has evolved into something more sophisticated – smoking pot is not the same as shooting up with heroin. And we need to apply the same nuanced, evidence-based thinking to wildlife trade,” he adds.

Some are eager to see China’s markets reopen.

“Rather than criminals coming here, wantonly killing our animals, we can now supply horn from stockpiles to meet the demand and take pressure away from wild populations,” says Pelham Jones, chair of the Private Rhino Owners Association in South Africa.

A farmed rhino’s horn is trimmed at breeder John Hume’s ranch in South Africa

China’s directive specified that tiger bones and rhino horns must come from farmed animals, but not that they be farmed in China. Conservationists believe the number of rhinos in China to be very small.

By contrast, more than 7,000 rhinos live on at least 300 private ranches in South Africa. Nearly 90 per cent of rhino owners are keen to sell their animals’ horns, which can be clipped every few years.

The profits, they say, will help cover the steep security costs of keeping poachers at bay.

“There’s only one country in the world that can meet China’s demand, and that’s South Africa,” Jones says.

Whether a proposal to reopen international trade of rhino horn could pass at Cites depends on a number of technicalities in the treaty and on whether proponents could rally enough support.

Cites states that countries should not breed tigers for their parts – only for conservation – and that they should reduce their use of rhino horn. But Cites governs only international trade, so provisions in the treaty about domestic trade do not carry the same enforceable legal weight.

The US has started looking into options of its own for ensuring that China’s domestic ban on tiger and rhino trade remains in place, says Christine Dawson, director of the office of conservation and water at the State Department. That includes the possibility of recertifying China under the Pelly amendment, which would pave the way for sanctions.

“There’s a lot at stake for these two major economies, and the leverage may never be better for the US to fold this issue into the broader trade issues going on right now,” says David Hayes, executive director of the State Energy and Environmental Impact Centre at New York University.

Sas-Rolfes points out, however, that the Pelly amendment might have lost its potency in a China with rising influence on the world stage. In any event, officials now may simply decide not to follow through with the directive.

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Whatever comes of the tiger bone and rhino horn controversy, Nijman emphasises that global collaboration – and perhaps compromise – with China might be key to solving the much bigger challenge of illegal wildlife trade.

“That means trying to better understand the Chinese way of thinking and working directly with them for solutions,” he says. “The solutions may not be the ones we initially thought were perhaps best from our western perspective, but ultimately they may be the only way forward.”

© New York Times

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