Conservationists say that economic interests in China may undermine the significant progress made by the country in wildlife protection.

Peter Li, a China Policy Specialist at Humane Society International (HSI) – a United Kingdom-based non-government organization – says the tiger breeding industry in China is at a strategic stage where its activities are in less developed areas of the country, Reuters reported.

Authorities have made poverty reduction a top priority, overshadowing the importance of environmental protection. According to the tiger breeding farms, they have been unable to cover the costs of running their parks and execute conservation plans ever since the state banned the sale of tiger bones, skins and meat.

In October 2018, the state council of China stated the ban on the trade of tiger bones and rhino horn imposed since 1993 would be lifted in “special circumstances.”

However, authorities postponed the move after conservation groups carried out protests throughout the nation. Conservationists also pointed out that no Chinese-bred tigers had been released into the wild, nor was there any scientific and medical need to use horns and bones in Chinese medicine.

Despite all this, the easing of the prohibition was supported by the State Forestry and Grassland Administration. Tang Xiaoping, an executive of the administration, told state-run media that there should not be opposition if the use of horns and bones which cause zero harm to the species.

Some speculated that the lifting of the ban was linked to China’s plans to develop the traditional medicine industry, which is expected to be worth about US$50 billion annually, and a key part of the One Belt One Road’ plan.

Tiger breeding parks in China sell tiger bone wine, which ranges from RMB280 (US$40.8) to RMB6,888 (US$1,004). They are often displayed in glass cabinets and also sold online on the popular Chinese social media messaging app WeChat.

Statistics from conservation groups suggest there are more than 6,500 farmed tigers in about 200 facilities in China. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), there are only about 40 to 50 wild tigers left in China.