The state Council - the cabinet of the Chinese government and the power base of Premier Li Keqiang - made public a decision to permit the controlled sale of rhino and tiger products, tossing out a 25-year ban and seemingly walking back on China's recent commitments to wildlife protection.
Only last year China finally banned the trade in ivory, extending a much-needed lifeline to endangered species.
It seemed like a landmark moment after years of being kicked about for running amok with animal welfare. Here was an example of China adopting a path of engagement on universal values through multinational consensus.
But on Monday, the legislative body quietly announced that limited trade in body parts obtained from "farmed rhino and tigers" would be OK to use for scientific, medical, and cultural requirements, according to Agence France Presse.
The Council announced:
"Rhino, tigers and their related products used in scientific research, including collecting genetic resource materials, will be reported to and approved by authorities. Specimens of skin and other tissues and organs of rhino and tigers can only be used for public exhibitions.
Rhino horns and tiger bones used in medical research or in healing can only be obtained from farmed rhino and tigers, not including those raised in zoos. Powdered forms of rhino horn and bones from dead tigers can only be used in qualified hospitals by qualified doctors recognised by the State Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine."
Needless to say this is bad news if you are a rhino or a tiger.
A few years back, the price for rhino horn peaked at around $65,000 (about R950,000) per kilogram. That makes it more valuable than gold and many times more valuable than elephant ivory.
Opening trade and creating a demand will most likely place pressure on supply, risking sourcing moving beyond farmed animals to the remaining endangered populations.
While the council did not specify what those medical, cultural or scientific requirements might be, it is widely understood the high restorative value Chinese-medicine practitioners place in the powdered or condensed forms of exotic animal parts. The rhino horn and tiger parts have obvious connections to virility and strength and have been used without Western scientific basis on ailments from back pain to arthritis.
The horn is made of keratin, like human hair and fingernails, but has been associated with a salve for fever, a miracle cancer compound and a very costly and roundly ineffective hangover cure.
Of course, what drives its ongoing value and desirability is its potency as a status symbol.
The foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said on Tuesday that China's 1993 ban on rhino horn and tiger bone products did not take into account the "reasonable needs of reality," adding that China has improved its "law enforcement mechanism."
Those comments have been edited out of Kang's.
Unsurprisingly, animal advocates have been stupefied by the decision to open trade up for scientific research, education, and medical grounds.
"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.
And Iris Ho, a senior programme specialist at the International Humane Society said the Chinese government "has signed a death warrant" for imperilled rhino and tigers.
"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."
But perhaps the most deflating critique came from the South African writer, investigative journalist, and photographer Don Pinnock, who connected the timing of China's lifting of the ban with a desire in South Africa's Department of Environmental Affairs to eke out some wiggle room for itself on wildlife trade.
"Could it be synchronicity or careful planning that this week saw China announce that it would legalise domestic trade in antique tiger bone and rhino horn - reversing a 25-year-old ban?" he wrote in an article published by Daily Maverick.
By opening to the trade on bone and horn products from captive-bred animals, Pinnock reckons the very officials in place to protect animals at the source, are eyeing potential profits out of China.
"The department's approach is what it calls "demand management.' It sounds smart, but it's nuts."
While there are a seeming handful of rhino left in the wild, South Africa and other African governments have encouraged the private farming of animals like the rhino and tiger.
The World Wildlife Fund says there are fewer than 4,000 tigers living in the wild, but there are some 6,000 captive tigers, farmed in about 200 government-sanctioned locations across China.
"Selling legal horn will signal that it's ethically okay to buy it, boosting sales. The stocks of the few rhino farmers and sale of state stockpiles would soon be overwhelmed and poaching of wild rhinos - already shockingly high - would rise."
The only sensible approach to this problem is to reduce demand in every way possible.
"Without detailing how it intends to do so, the department told South Africa's parliament it would instead attempt to manipulate Asian consumer behaviour to choose legal horn over poached horn. Plans for this mammoth PR task were not in evidence, but maybe the department knew China planned to legalise bone and horn sales - we also sell China lion bones," Pinnock added.
What appears to be happening at the other end of China's trade link, is the South African wildlife department is angling to increase the sale of rhino horn with one hand while coming down on poaching with the other - eliminate illegal trade, but at the same time, stimulate a parallel legal market.
In simple terms, stop the bad guys so the good guys can make a profit, Pinnock says in the Daily Maverick article.
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