History repeating itself with rhino farming in China

On November 18, 2014, Radio Television Hong Kong ran a story headlined, “China reintroducing rhinos after 50 years”.

“Seven white rhinos imported from South Africa have adapted so well to their home in southwest China they will be able to start breeding in two years,” the story said. “In introducing these white rhinos, we hope that they can reproduce and rebuild a species here,” an official of the Sun River National Park in Pu’er, Yunnan Province, was quoted as saying.

These are some of the 121 rhinos imported from South Africa from 2006 to 2009 to start rhino farming in China, which were featured in TIME Magazine in June 2011. Those that went to Yunnan Province were meant “to establish the largest rhinoceros industrial base in China,” according government records quoted by TIME. The owner, reportedly a company tied to arms manufacturing, planned to “import at least 40 rhinos this year and hopes to expand [the Yunnan] population to 200 within five years.” It had invented a “living rhinoceros horn-scraping tool” approved by China’s State Forestry Administration, apparently to harvest rhino horn despite the country’s 1993 ban on trade in rhino horn and tiger bone.

The scenario sounds like a repeat of the 1980s imports of zoo tigers from the United States used to start China’s tiger farming industry. That industry also took cover under the guise of battery-breeding tigers for “reintroduction” into the wild once the 1993 ban made trade in tiger bone illegal.

The UN treaty on trade in endangered species said “no” to tiger farming in 1992. Most in the conservation community thought China’s 1993 ban on trade in tiger bone and rhino horn meant an end to the country’s tiger farms. And yet the number of farmed tigers grew—from some 600 in the late 1990s to around 6,000 today. China’s State Forestry Administration has slowly and quietly allowed farms to sell tiger skins and manufacture tiger-bone wine. The availability of these products has rekindled a market in China that had all but disappeared. And consumers some in this new market are wealthy enough to buy the rarest of tiger products – those that come from wild tigers.

China’s nascent rhino farming and its stated intention to seek UN permission to import stockpiles of rhino horns from South Africa have fueled consumer demand that has triggered record rhino poaching of African rhinos in 2014.

The world said little when Chinese businessmen began commodifying tigers more than 20 tears ago. As the number of tigers on farms grew, the number in the wild has dropped by more than half. Will we standby and let history repeat itself for rhinos? Are we okay with tigers and rhinos being nothing more than livestock to make luxury goods and allow the wealthy elite bank on these species extinction in the wild? If not, please support the Chinese-led effort to remove the mandate to farm and consume endangered species from China’s wildlife protection law.

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