By Anna Mudeva
THE HAGUE, June 8 (Reuters) - China is considering lifting a ban on trade in tiger parts, believed to cure anything from rheumatism to laziness, despite growing fears that the move could wipe out the endangered big cat.
China told the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) this week that it would allow trade in parts from captive-bred tigers if a scientific review proved the step would reduce poaching and help tigers worldwide.
But conservationists and governments said Beijing’s move, under pressure from commercial interests, would only fuel illegal trade throughout Asia and urged China to better educate its people, for example to use aspirin not tiger bone wine.
China banned the sale of tiger bones and hides in 1993, virtually wiping out the market for traditional medicines made from parts of the animal.
Illegal trade has, however, revived after the appearance of several farms that currently breed about 5,000 tigers. The farms have started offering tiger products and stimulating demand to force the government’s hands, environmental groups said.
"We have received advice that if we opened hospitals providing tiger bones from the farms, people would stop going to the black market," said Wang Weisheng, director at the wildlife department of China’s state forestry administration.
"This will cut down the profit of poachers and smugglers. As a responsible government, we will launch a scientific evaluation of this advice," he told Reuters on the sideline of CITES June 3-15 meeting in The Hague.
"If the policy (of allowing trade) can prove that it can help the tiger population internationally, we will adopt it. If the policy can’t help the wild tiger, we will not employ it."
The evaluation was to start in July but he could not say how long it might take.
Wildlife trade monitor TRAFFIC and the environmental group WWF said China’s idea was dangerous and could possibly drive tigers to extinction. There are only about 3,000 to 5,000 tigers left in the wild.
China itself has about 30 to 50 tigers in the wild after decades of habitat destruction and killing for their parts.
Tiger bones have long been a valued ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine used in the forms of wines, powder, balms and pills to cure illnesses ranging from rheumatism to general weakness, headaches and paralysis.
India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan have expressed concerns that even the prospect of China lifting the trade ban would stimulate poaching in their countries, where tigers live, in the hope of supplying the Chinese market.
"(These) states are extremely concerned that this is going to be the last straw that will break the tiger’s back," said Vivek Menon of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
"In India this cannot come at a worse time. We have declared a national tiger crisis -- we are losing more tigers today to illegal trade than any other previous time," he said.
The United States also joined efforts to pressure China to back off from its idea. The assistant secretary for oceans and environment, Claudia McMurray, said allowing trade would only fuel more poaching and demand and further endanger the tiger.
Chinese culture believes that nearly every tiger part has medicinal cure -- the claws treat insomnia, the eyeballs cure epilepsy and malaria, the brain treats laziness and pimples. The tiger penis is considered a powerful aphrodisiac.
Conservationists urged China to focus its efforts on promoting medical substitutes such as viagra and aspirin.
"My age is 71. I suffer a little from rheumatism. I take aspirin and I‘m still working, travelling all over the world. Aspirin helps me greatly, it’s very cheap and effective," said CITES delegate Ashok Kumar of the Wildlife Trust of India.