By Ben Blanchard
BEIJING (Reuters) - Traditional Chinese medicine risks extinction if there is a push by the government to completely replace the wild animal parts now used with substitutes, a senior Chinese lawmaker said on Saturday.
China, where an animal-loving middle class has been trying to change old ways, has promoted substitutes for tiger bones, rhino horns and certain other wild animal products, but doubts persist about their usefulness even among some officials.
Beijing in 1993 banned trade in tiger bones and rhino horns, both prized in traditional medicine, as part of global efforts to halt declining animal stocks. But illegal poaching continues, driven by illegal demand in an increasingly affluent country.
Speaking after China amended its wildlife protection law, Zhai Yong, head of parliament's environment and resources protection committee legislation department, admitted using wild animals for medicine was highly controversial. But substitutes reduce the effectiveness of traditional medicine, he said.
"If in the future original products from wild animals are all substituted, our Chinese medicine perhaps won't be of any use anymore. This issue needs to be discussed by us Chinese people," he added.
Commercial tiger farms in China are legal and tiger parts from these farms often end up being made into tonics and going into other medicines, animal rights groups say.
Substitutes exist for tiger bones and many other products from wild animals such as bear bile, the extraction of which from live animals rights groups condemn as barbaric.
Yan Xun, chief engineer of the wildlife preservation department in the State Forestry Administration, said skin and bones from farmed tigers were "legal assets" but tiger bones could not be used in Chinese medicine since the 1993 ban.
State media this week cited another lawmaker, Jin Hua, as saying the law should not ban the use of wildlife due to the importance of traditional Chinese medicine.
"Some international forces use this as a pretext to attack the raw material requirements for traditional Chinese medicines, and often require China to forbid their trade," she was quoted as saying.
The amendments to the wildlife protection law brought only small changes. It still permits the continued "utilisation" of wild animals for medicine and also allows for them to be used in public performances, something animal rights groups have expressed concern about as well.
While the revised law bans mistreatment of wild animals, it contains no specific punishments for any violations.
(Editing by Tom Heneghan)