China has defended its decision to reverse aspects of a decades-old ban on the trade of tiger bones and rhino horns after conservationists labelled it a "huge setback" to efforts aimed at protecting the endangered animals' future in the wild.
Beijing's State Council on Monday said trade in parts obtained from "farmed rhinos and tigers" would be authorised for scientific, medical and cultural use. In all other circumstances, the buying and selling of rhino and tiger parts will remain illegal.
"Regulation on the sales and use of these products will be strengthened ... and the trade volume will be strictly controlled," the council said in a statement.
Rhino horns and tiger bones are valued by some practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine and prescribed to treat a range of ailments, including fever, gout, rheumatism and back pain.
The parts supposed medicinal benefits have never been scientifically proven.
The Chinese announcement prompted an outcry from global conservation bodies, which fear the new rules could drive the illegal trade and further put the animals at risk of being poached.
"The resumption of a legal market for these products is an enormous setback to efforts to protect tigers and rhinos in the wild," Margaret Kinnaird, of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), said in a statement on Monday.
On Tuesday, China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang maintained Beijing's position, saying the reversal of the ban was in line with the "reasonable needs of reality".
China has also improved its "law enforcement mechanism" and plans to step up efforts to crack down on illegal wildlife trade, Lu told reporters.
Monday's controversial move lifted restrictions put in place by China in 1993 as part of a global push to protect the world's endangered wildlife species from extinction.
According to the WWF, there are fewer than 4,000 tigers living in the wild worldwide.
Though numbers have increased from 2010 - up from about 3,200 to nearly 3,900 - the figure represents a dramatic population decrease from a century ago, when an estimated 100,000 tigers roamed free.
Up to 6,000 captive tigers, meanwhile, are estimated to be in held in about 200 government-sanctioned farms across China.
|Wild tiger numbers have plunged by almost 97 percent from a century ago [Jose Cabezas/Reuters]|
Rhinos, meanwhile, number about 30,000 in the wild across all five species, according to UK-based conservation charity Save The Rhino. Three of the five species - Javan, Sumatran and Black Rhinos - are classified as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Like tigers, rhinos face considerable threats from habitat destruction and poaching.
"With wild tiger and rhino populations at such low levels and facing numerous threats, legalised trade in their parts is simply too great a gamble for China to take," WWF's Kinnaird said.
The US-based animal protection organisation Humane Society International (HSI) said China's decision had "signed a death warrant for imperilled rhinos and tigers in the wild who already face myriad threats to their survival".
"It sets up what is essentially a laundering scheme for illegal tiger bone and rhino horn to enter the marketplace and further perpetuate the demand for these animal parts," Iris Ho, HSI's senior specialist for wildlife programme and policy, said in a statement on Monday.
"This is a devastating blow to our ongoing work to save species from cruel exploitation and extinction, and we implore the Chinese government to reconsider."