Chinese domestic rhino horn trade



Just 10 months ago, the Chinese government introduced a ban on the domestic trade in elephant ivory and was praised around the world for its forward-looking efforts to help stop the illegal trade in elephant ivory. wild species. But with the publication of a document, an opinion of the General Office of the State Council released in October 2018, China canceled its good work. The government effectively legalizes, under certain conditions, their domestic trade in rhino horn and tiger bone.

While some had anticipated such a development for the tiger bone trade – given the “value” of c. 2,400 tigers currently on China’s two largest captive breeding farms – the inclusion of rhino horn at this point surprised many organizations, including Save the Rhino, by surprise. China’s 25-year ban on the use of rhino horn has been overturned.

The Opinion opens a Pandora’s box of questions, unaided by the difficulty of understanding the nuances of a document written in another language, capable of being translated with slight, but crucial differences.

In summary, the Opinion has now legalized:

• the use of tiger bone and rhino horn from animals bred in captivity by hospitals, supporting the use of both products in traditional Chinese medicine
• domestic trade in ancient tiger and rhinoceros products

* Update 11/12/2018 – A Chinese government official has confirmed that the implementation of this new trade has been suspended, with strict bans on the sale of rhino horn still in place. Further information is available here:

What is the definition of “captive-bred” and how many captive-bred rhinos does China have?
The notice states that “Rhinoceros horns and tiger bones used in medical research or in healing can only be obtained from rhinos and farmed tigers, excluding those reared in zoos “.

We published a report from the CITES Trade Database to see how many live southern white rhinos were exported from South Africa to China between 2000 and 2016 inclusive, and for what purpose. ie what was the final destination. Depending on whether one takes the files as indicated by the exporter (South Africa) or the importer (China), completely different answers are found.

Destination Number of rhinos according to importer (China)
Captive breeding or artificial propagation 35
zoo 182
Total 217
Destination Number of rhinos according to exporter (South Africa)
Captive breeding or artificial propagation 111
Educative 7
Hunting trophy 36
Commercial 2
zoo 135
Total 291

Leaving aside the imponderable questions of how an animal classified as “alive” can also be classified as live southern white rhinos were exported from South Africa to China between 2000 and 2016. It is a confidence interval rather weak.

In the absence of demographic data on the age or sex of the animals in the database, it is not possible to make precise predictions about breeding performance in captivity. But, given that the numbers seem to be in the few hundred at best, we have to wonder how the powdered horn derived from these animals can meet the anticipated demand of China’s 1.4 billion people now that the use of rhino horn in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is legal again.

Do these rhinos have to be captive-bred in China or could they be from overseas captive-breeding operations?
The Opinion is not clear on this point.

As has been widely reported, some private rhino owners – primarily John Hume, owner of the Buffalo Dream Ranch with over 1,600 southern white rhinos, and Pelham Jones, president of the Private Rhino Owners’ Association (PROA) – in Africa of the South have been very vocal in lobbying for the legalization of the international trade in rhino horn. Such a proposal, which can only be submitted by a national government, should be submitted to CITES for consideration at one of its Conferences of the Parties (CoP); the next CoP will take place next year (May-June) in Sri Lanka.

However, if a private rhino owner were to register their farm as a captive breeding operation (CBO), which itself would have to be ratified by CITES given that southern white rhinos are listed in the Appendix for CITES purposes, then the CBO could potentially trade in rhino horn internationally, as normal CITES regulations do not apply.

Is China considering importing rhino horns from a South African CBO?

What is the definition of a “cultural relic?”
The notice describes the conditions under which “cultural relics” of rhino horn can be imported, exported, bought or sold.

As recently reported, the governing body of the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Health Assembly, will adopt the 11th version of the organization’s global compendium, known as the Classification, next year. international statistics of diseases and related health problems (ICD). For the first time, the ICD will include details on traditional medicines.

Chinese President Xi Jinping strongly supports TCM, and in 2016 the State Council drew up a national strategy, which includes support for TCM tourism and promises universal access to practices by 2020 and a booming industry. boom by 2030. TCM is already a big business, worth an estimated US $ 50 billion per year worldwide, and China intends to develop the industry rapidly, especially through its trade initiative. ” the Belt and the Road “. The WHO announcement is worth a fortune.

But could the inclusion of TCM by the WHO also facilitate the import and export of rhino horn as a cultural relic?

While our first thought might be that “cultural relics” apply to ancient objects such as ornate and precious libation cups (traditionally used by Chinese emperors because it was believed that the rhino horn would interact with poisons), it it is possible that the term extends as to TCM.

How will law enforcement officials in China tell the difference between legal and illegal rhino horn?
The Notice recognizes that it will be necessary to treat legal and illegal rhino horns differently. How this is to be done is not discussed in detail, beyond a brief discussion of the need for precise documentation and acquisition of the necessary permits, etc.

After seeing (table above) how large the discrepancies can be in the CITES Trade Database, which has been operating since 1975 and is part of a long-standing international collaboration within the UN, we we ask to what extent we could be confident in the authorization processes applying to several levels of government referred to in the Opinion, i.e. provincial, autonomous regional and municipal governments, all ministries of the Council state and affiliated organizations.

Additionally, while whole horns are relatively simple to chip, weigh, measure and have samples taken for DNA analysis by, for example, the RhODIS project in Pretoria which can match the horn to individual animals, it’s not clear how easy that would be. to verify the origin of the rhinoceros horn powder, which can of course come from several animals.

How will the Chinese public understand what is legal and what is illegal?
The advisory recognizes that public education programs will be needed to ensure that Chinese citizens are not tempted to import or purchase rhino horns from illegal sources.

There is no discussion of who should take responsibility for such an education program, or how its effectiveness would be monitored or evaluated.

Does it really matter if China starts buying and selling rhino horns in the country?
We believe so.

• Legitimizing the use of rhino horn in TCM will likely increase the number of people wanting to use rhino horn (and, potentially, as noted in Nature’s article, means that they do not receive treatment. suitable for medical conditions)
• Opening the rhino horn trade through the back door, i.e. potentially allowing direct trade between CBOs in South Africa (and elsewhere) and buyers in China, will increase the need and severely test the law enforcement capabilities
• The message of behavior change campaigns through public service announcements or information about illegal or legal rhino horn will become much more complex, losing the clarity that previously existed when all rhino horn consumption in China was illegal.

So what can we do?
We do not yet know the answers to all of the questions discussed above and will work with colleagues from other organizations to try to understand all the ramifications of this announcement. So, for now, all we can do is voice our concerns about the rhino horn trade (we have no authority to discuss the issues related to the tiger bone trade).

It seems pretty clear that China isn’t backing down on this announcement anytime soon, given the loss of face it would entail. And the money at stake. The day after the notice was published, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang maintained Beijing’s position, saying the rescinding of the ban was in line with “Reasonable needs of reality” (Al Jazeera, 2018).

So the big question is, how can we ensure that no harm will be done, as a result of China’s decision, to the wild rhino populations in Africa and Asia? Answering this question will be a top priority for Save the Rhino International and other like-minded organizations.

At the same time, we will work closely with TRAFFIC-China, to whom we recently awarded a large grant to develop a social media campaign on the illegal use of rhino horn in China. We need to be sure that we are spending these funds as wisely and as efficiently as possible.

Further reading
Al Jazeera (October 30, 2018): China defends decision to relax tiger bones and rhino horns from 25-year ban

Nature (September 26, 2018): Why Chinese Medicine is Heading to Clinics Around the World

State Council, People’s Republic of China (October 29, 2018): China to control trade in rhino and tiger products



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