In October 2018, China overturned a 25-year ban on the use of rhinoceros horns and tiger bones in medicine. This surprise overruling came as a shock to the public, because the ban had originally been implemented to counteract extreme poaching practices that were, in part, motivated by the sale of Chinese Traditional Medicine (TCM).

After the decision, doctors approved by the State Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine were legally allowed to prescribe medicines containing rhino horns and tiger bones to patients – as long as they came from farmed rhinos and tigers.

Both rhino horns and tiger bones have been used in TCM to (supposedly) cure erectile dysfunction (ED). They are also rumoured to cure everything from arthritis to cancer, however there is no scientific backing to corroborate any of these claims.

Zhang Li, a doctor practicing traditional medicine at Shanghai’s Jinyang Community Medical Center believes tiger parts – such as bones, claws, and teeth – are believed to have inherent aphrodisiac properties because the tiger is seen as a symbol of power (and therefore potency) in Chinese culture.

But once again, Dr John Goodrich, Panthera’s chief scientist and tiger program senior director asserts there is “no basis in science to support TCM’s claims regarding efficacy of these remedies (sic)”. He then goes on to say there is no justification to eradicate entire species when “other existing and well-proven methods”, such as sildenafil and tadalafil, can be used to treat ED.

So, clearly it’s not the desire to provide effective medicine that is the motivating force behind poaching. The street value for rhino horns has been estimated to be £40,000 per kilo, which is more than the price of gold at the equivalent weight. Tiger bones and other body parts can also be sold for €100 or more on the Chinese black market.

Currently, there are only 4000 tigers left in the wild. Poaching and habitat loss due to human development has placed the tiger on the endangered species list. Likewise, most of the rhino species alive today are critically endangered. As a consequence of poaching, there are just 5,500 black rhinos living in the wild – compared with 70,000 in 1970. In fact, between 1970 and 1995 poaching led to the depletion of 96% of the rhino population.

Since then, considerable conservation work has been undertaken to restore rhino populations. In the early 1900s there were only between 50-100 white rhinos left in the wild. Now, thanks to extensive protective measures, there are between 17,212 and 18,915. Similarly, the number of wild black rhinos has more than doubled since 1995.

After working so hard to bring rhinos back from the brink of extinction, countries around the world reacted in outrage when China made its decision to reverse the ban on the use of rhino horns and tiger bones in medicine.

Although China specified that the horns and bones were only to be sourced from farmed animals, many feared that this would encourage a resurgence in poaching. Moreover, concern was raised over the fate of rhinos and tigers living in captivity. In the past, Chinese zoos have been exposed for deliberately starving their tigers to death to make tiger bone wine, a concoction that allegedly enhances male sexual desire. Further, there have been reports of animals being taken from the wild and sold to zoos to be killed. Even with the “restrictions” on rhino horns and tiger bones in place, these reports suggest that it is likely that poachers would have found a way around these controls.

In response to public backlash, China reinstated the original 1993 ban (which was originally implemented to protect endangered species’) in November 2018. However, China’s State Council announced that the ban is only temporary. How long the ban will continue to be upheld remains a mystery, but with animal rights organisations like Peta lobbying to keep it in place perhaps China will consider permanently banning the use of rhino horns and tiger bones in medicine.

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