The announcement this week by China that it was reversing a 25-year-old ban on rhino horns and tiger bones for use in medicine must come as a shock to environmentalists around the world, and specifically in those countries, including India, where poachers have been active in order to feed the market for these products.
While the Chinese say they will allow the use of horns and bones only for “medical research or in healing”, by certified hospitals and doctors and only from animals raised in captivity, including zoo animals, this is hardly reassuring. Environmentalists are right to believe that the decision will fuel the black market for wild rhino and tiger parts, revered in traditional Chinese medicine for their healing properties, and as aphrodisiacs. Quite correctly has the director of wildlife policy at the World Wildlife Fund, Washington termed the decision as “devastating”, and added “I can’t overstate the potential impact.” Experts have said the move may be aimed at boosting Chinese traditional medicine, an industry valued at more than $100 billion, and placing it on a par with Western medicine.
This decision is curious to say the least if only because it was in 2016 that China announced a ban on the use of ivory. Beijing had also won praise from environmentalists for curtailing the use of shark’s fin. Chinese state media has sought to project this week’s lifting of the ban as a measure to help rhinos and tigers by improving oversight, but few will buy this facile argument. The Chinese obsession with traditional medicine has already seen large swathes of Africa, parts of India and Pakistan being denuded of donkeys. In these countries, donkeys have been slaughtered in the thousands and their skins boiled to extract gelatin which is used to make a product called ejiao, traditionally used to treat blood circulation problems but now being marketed aggressively as a general wellness medicine and aphrodisiac.
Ejiao was once the preserve of Chinese royalty but since 2010 it has been pushed through online and television marketing to young Chinese. While several African countries, including Uganda, Tanzania, Botswana, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal, have banned the export of donkey products to China, the brutal slaughter of these animals continues in many countries including Kenya.
A report published last year had estimated that 1.8 million donkey hides are traded every year while the demand is estimated at between four and 10 million. China’s donkey population has halved since 1991 and efforts to set up donkey farms have been largely unsuccessful, ironically because of the low fertility of the animal. And hence, there is this relentless hunger to import donkey hides from countries around the world. It is the time the world woke up and realised that animal life on the planet cannot be sacrificed at the altar of Chinese lust; be they rhinos, tigers or donkeys, animals deserve better.