Bizarrely, it suggests they may be useful for treating critical illnesses
Print edition | China
| HONG KONG
“IT’S GOOD news for my patients,” says Zhu Meng, a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine in Beijing. Ms Zhu is cheering a government directive, which took effect on October 29th, allowing the medical use of tiger bone and rhinoceros horn after a 25-year ban. Although evidence of their curative properties is sorely lacking, Ms Zhu insists that tiger bone mixed with alcohol can cure arthritis and that rhino-horn powder can help in the treatment of cerebrovascular disease, among other things.
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In 1993, when the previous ban was declared, tiger bone and rhino horn were also removed from the officially approved list of Chinese medicines. In 2010 the World Federation of Chinese Medicine Societies, based in Beijing, told its members not to use tiger bone or any other parts from endangered species. Astonishingly, however, the new directive implies that tiger and rhino parts may have considerable medical value. Usage of them is to be restricted, it says, to patients at approved hospitals with “critical” conditions or “difficult and complicated illnesses”. Private trade in those animals’ parts remains prohibited.
Global conservation groups are furious. “The Chinese government has signed a death warrant” for wild rhinos and tigers, says Iris Ho of Humane Society International. Only around 30,000 rhinos and 4,000 tigers are estimated to roam freely. The directive says that the bones and horns may be procured only from farmed animals, and that only the bones of tigers that have died of natural causes can be used. But conservationists worry that allowing exceptions to the ban will encourage people to lie about the origin of animals. Poachers may take advantage of this.
Activists are also surprised by China’s apparent step backwards. It had won kudos for its ban on all trade in ivory, which came into effect in January. Many Western analysts had assumed that China’s obsession with traditional medicine would wane as it modernised. But old “cures” remain popular. Some traditional drugs are included in the government’s “essential medicines list”, meaning they can be obtained at heavily subsidised prices. In a survey earlier this year of nearly 2,000 urban Chinese by GlobeScan, a consultancy, 8% of respondents in Beijing and 7% in the southern city of Guangzhou admitted to having (illegally) purchased rhino horn in the previous 12 months. Most came from middle- or high-income households. Many will have unwittingly bought fake substitutes, but some undoubtedly paid to have real rhinos killed (pictured is a Siberian tiger found by police after it was slain by black marketeers).
China’s government has defended its decision to backtrack. A foreign-ministry spokesman said that the previous regulations, which in effect banned all uses of rhino horn and tiger bone, had neglected to accommodate the “practical and reasonable” needs of “medical healing”. The change of heart may reflect the proclivities of Xi Jinping, the president. More than his predecessors, Mr Xi has been extolling the virtues of ancient Chinese culture and medicine—“a gem of ancient Chinese science,” as he once called it. Endangered animals have reason to differ.
Print edition | China
| HONG KONG