China’s domestic trade in rhino horn

Just 10 months ago, the Chinese Government introduced a ban on the domestic trade in elephant ivory, and was commended around the world for its forward-looking efforts to help stop the illegal wildlife trade. But with the publication of one document, a Notice by the General Office of State Council released in October 2018, China has undone its good work. The Government is effectively legalising, with some conditions, their domestic trade in rhino horn and tiger bone.

While some had anticipated such a move for the tiger bone trade – given the ‘value’ of the c. 2,400 tigers currently in China’s two largest captive-breeding farms – the inclusion of rhino horn at this point has caught many organisations, including Save the Rhino, by surprise. China’s 25-year ban on the use of rhino horn has been overturned.

The Notice opens a Pandora’s Box of questions, not helped by the difficulty of understanding the nuances of a document written in another language, capable of being translated with slight, but crucial, differences.

In summary, the Notice has now legalised:

• the use of tiger bone and rhino horn from captive bred animals by hospitals, giving support for the use of both products in Traditional Chinese Medicine
• the domestic trade in antique tiger and rhino products

* Update 12/11/2018 – A Chinese government official has confirmed that the implementation of this new trade has been suspended, with strict bans on the sale of rhino horn still in place. Further information can be found here: 

What is the definition of ‘captive-bred’, and how many captive-bred rhinos does China have?
The Notice says that “rhino horns and tiger bones used in medical research or in healing can only be obtained from farmed rhinos and tigers, not including those raised in zoos”.

We ran a report from the CITES trade database to see how many live Southern white rhinos were exported from South Africa to China between 2000 and 2016 inclusive, and for what purpose, i.e. what was the end destination. Depending on whether one takes the records as stated by the Exporter (South Africa) or Importer (China), completely different answers are found.

Destination Number of rhinos according to the Importer (China)
Breeding in captivity or artificial propagation 35
Zoo 182
Total 217


Destination Number of rhinos according to the Exporter (South Africa)
Breeding in captivity or artificial propagation 111
Educational 7
Hunting Trophy 36
Commercial 2
Zoo 135
Total 291


Leaving aside the imponderable questions of how an animal classified as “live” can also be classified as a “hunting trophy”, and how there can be such wide variations between the records submitted by the Exporter and Importer, it seems that between 35 and 111 live Southern white rhinos were exported from South Africa to China between 2000 and 2016. That’s quite a poor confidence interval.

With no demographic data as to age or sex of the animals on the database, it is not possible to make any accurate predictions as to the captive breeding performance. But, given that numbers seem likely to be in the low 100s at best, we have to ask how powdered horn derived from these animals can meet the anticipated demand from China’s 1.4 billion population, now that the use of rhino horn in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is once again legal.

Do these rhinos have to be captive-bred in China, or could they come from overseas Captive Breeding Operations?
The Notice is not clear on this point.

As has been widely reported, certain private rhino owners – primarily John Hume, owner of Buffalo Dream Ranch with more than 1,600 Southern white rhinos, and Pelham Jones, Chair of the Private Rhino Owners’ Association (PROA) – in South Africa have been very vocal in lobbying for the legalisation of the international trade in rhino horn. Such a proposal, which can only be submitted by a national government, would have to go to CITES for consideration at one of its Conferences of the Parties (CoP); the next CoP is being held next year (May-June) in Sri Lanka.

However if a private rhino owner were to register their farm as a Captive Breeding Operation (CBO), which itself would need to be ratified by CITES given that Southern white rhinos are Appendix-listed for CITES purposes, then the CBO could, potentially, trade in rhino horn internationally, as normal CITES regulations do not apply.

Is China planning to import rhino horn from a South African CBO?

What is the definition of a “cultural relic?”
The Notice outlines the conditions under which rhino horn “cultural relics” can be imported, exported, bought or sold.

As reported recently, the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) governing body, the World Health Assembly, will next year adopt the 11th version of the organisation’s global compendium, known as the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD). For the first time, the ICD will include details about traditional medicines.

The Chinese President Xi Jinping strongly supports TCM and, in 2016, the State Council developed a national strategy, which includes supporting TCM tourism and promises universal access to the practices by 2020 and a booming industry by 2030. TCM is already big business, worth an estimated US $50 billion per year worldwide, and China has plans to expand the industry rapidly, not least via its Belt and Road trade initiative. The WHO’s announcement is worth a fortune.

But could the WHO’s inclusion of TCM also facilitate the import and export of rhino horn as a cultural relic?

While our first thought might be that “cultural relics” apply to antique items such as ornate and valuable libation cups (traditionally used by Chinese emperors as it was believed that rhino horn would interact with poisons), it is possible that the term might extend as far as TCM.

How will law enforcement officials in China differentiate between legal and illegal rhino horn?
The Notice recognises that there will be a need to deal with legal and illegal rhino horn differently. Quite how that is to be achieved is not discussed in detail, beyond brief discussion of the need for accurate documentation and acquisition of the necessary permits etc.

Having seen (above table) how wide the discrepancies can be in the CITES trade database, which has been in operation since 1975 and is part of longstanding international collaboration within the UN, we wonder how confident we could be about permit processes applying at multiple levels of government referred to in the Notice, i.e. the Provincial, Autonomous Regional and Municipal Governments, All Ministries of State Council and Affiliated Organizations.

Further, while whole horns are relatively simple to microchip, weigh, measure, and have samples taken for DNA analysis by, for example, the RhODIS project in Pretoria that can match horn back to individual animals, it is not clear how easy it would be to verify the origin of powdered rhino horn, which may, of course, come from more than one animal.

How will members of the public in China understand what is legal and what is illegal?
The Notice acknowledges that public education programmes will be needed to ensure that Chinese citizens are not tempted to import or buy rhino horn from illegal sources.

There is no discussion of who is to bear responsibility for such an education programme, or how its effectiveness would be monitored or evaluated.

Does it actually matter if China starts buying and selling rhino horn within the country?
We think it does.

• Legitimising the use of rhino horn in TCM will likely increase the number of people wishing to use rhino horn (and, potentially, as discussed in the Nature article, mean that they are not given appropriate treatments for medical conditions)
• Opening trade in rhino horn via the back door, i.e. potentially enabling direct trade between CBOs in South Africa (and elsewhere) and buyers in China, will expand the need for and severely test law enforcement capabilities
• The messaging of behaviour-change campaigns via public service announcements or information about illegal vs legal rhino horn will become much more complex, losing the clarity that previously existed when all rhino horn consumption in China was illegal

So what can we do?
We don’t, yet, know the answers to all of the questions discussed above, and will be working with colleagues in other organisations to try to understand the full ramifications of this announcement. So for now, all we can do is articulate our concerns regarding the trade in rhino horn (we have no authority to discuss the issues as they relate to the tiger bone trade).

It seems pretty clear that China is not going to back down on this announcement anytime soon, given the loss of face that this would entail. And the money at stake. The day after the Notice was published, 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” (Al Jazeera, 2018).

The big question, then, is: How can we ensure that no harm is done, as a result of China’s decision, to Africa and Asia’s populations of wild rhinos? Answering this is going to be a top priority for Save the Rhino International and other like-minded organisations.

Meanwhile, we will liaise closely with TRAFFIC-China, to which we have recently awarded a major grant to develop a social media campaign about the illegal use of rhino horn in China. We need to be sure that we are spending these funds as wisely and as effectively as we can.

Further reading
Al Jazeera (30 October 2018): China defends move to ease tiger bones, rhino horns 25-year ban

Nature (26 September 2018): Why Chinese medicine is heading for clinics around the world

The State Council, People’s Republic of China (29 October 2018): China to control trade in rhino and tiger products

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