China’s Got the Wrong Medicine

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- China’s decision to reverse a 25-year-old ban and allow trade, in “special cases,” in products made from critically endangered tigers and rhinos has provoked a predictable firestorm of criticism. China has sought to portray the move as a responsible way to regulate such goods: The goal is to produce a steady supply of things like rhino horns and tiger penises -- used in traditional Chinese medicine, or TCM -- from farmed animals, thus cutting into the black market for poached ones.

The international community isn’t buying the argument, and it shouldn’t. Chinese demand drives the global market for products made from endangered species; legalizing even a small part of it will only serve to whet the appetites of Chinese consumers for more. More importantly, China can promote the TCM industry without such products, as several of its neighbors have already proven.

Chinese interest in using parts from what are now endangered species dates back centuries. In imperial times, rhino horn was prized as a raw material for exquisite carvings and other luxury items. Similarly, both rhino horn and tiger parts (including bones, whiskers and the penis) have a long history as ingredients in TCM. The rarity of these beasts, even in ancient times, made such mediciines inaccessible to all but the richest Chinese and raised their perceived value to those who couldn't afford them.

As China's economy and middle class expanded in the reform era, so did demand for rare animals. China signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1981. But lackluster enforcement -- in 1986, China was home to 116 factories making wine from tiger parts -- quickly became an international issue. In response, China imposed its 1993 ban on the sale, purchase, import and export of tiger bones and rhino horns, and eliminated both items from the official pharmacopeia governing the use of pharmaceuticals in China.

It’s true that the ban merely drove the trade in endangered species underground. For example, an investigation last year revealed that rhino horn remains available throughout China, both online and on retail platforms. This has had devastating -- and accelerating -- consequences for the roughly 30,000 remaining wild rhinos. In 2006, 60 rhinos were poached in Africa; in 2016, the most recent date for which data is available, 1,115 were.

Making room for regulated harvesting of animal parts, however, isn’t likely to shrink this black market. In China, there’s always been a cultural and price premium for traditional medicines (and food) harvested from wild species. Given levels of local corruption, it wouldn’t be very hard for importers to pass off such products as farm-raised in order to get them onto the market.

What China should be doing instead is attacking the whole idea that rhino horn and tiger parts are valid and effective ingredients in TCM. That myth directly contradicts long-standing consensus among TCM practitioners, both within China and outside, that such "medicines" are either pure quackery, or easily replaceable with other substances (such as acetaminophen).

China wouldn’t be the first East Asian country to do so. In the 1970s, Japan was Asia's leading consumer of rhino horn. Like China today, Japan's trade was driven by growing affluence and an indigenous traditional-medicine industry that valued the alleged curative powers of parts from several endangered species, including rhinos.

In the late 1970s, as Japan prepared to join CITES, the government worked with traditional-medicine manufacturers and practitioners to promote the use of a substitute product -- the horns of the Saiga antelope -- in treatments that typically used rhino horns. Within a few years, use of rhino horn in Japan ceased almost entirely.

Demand-suppression efforts have been successful elsewhere in East Asia as well. In Taiwan, the effort was partly facilitated by government-sponsored studies demonstrating that rhino horn is useless as a drug.

China has already had success in changing mindsets and suppressing demand for endangered species. In recent years, government-supported public-awareness campaigns inveighing against the consumption of shark fins have contributed to a steep decline (as much as 80 percent over a decade) in the consumption of the dish. A government crackdown on extravagant official banquets also reduced demand, while intensifying the social stigma associated with the dish.

A similar effort on behalf of rhinos and tigers (combined with substitute products) would help preserve endangered populations globally and boost the Chinese government's efforts to promote TCM in global markets. The only way to save these animals is to make sure no one wants to kill them.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.