Tigers in the water at a tiger park in China. [Stringer-Reuters]

China has reversed a controversial decision to lift a 25-year-old ban on the use of tiger and rhino parts in science and traditional medicine after an outcry from environmental activists.

Three strict bans – the import and export of rhinos, tigers and their by-products, the sale, purchase, transport, carrying and mailing of rhinos, tigers and their by-products and the use of rhino horns and tiger bones in medicine – will remain in force, a senior official from the State Council, China’s cabinet, said in a statement.

“The Chinese government has not changed its stance on wildlife protection and will not ease the crackdown on illegal trafficking and trade of rhinos, tigers and their by-products and other criminal activities,” State Council Executive Deputy Secretary-General Ding Xuedong said.

The government will organise special crackdown campaigns with a focus on addressing the illegal trade in rhinos, tigers and their by-products, the statement added.

China had announced last month it would reverse the ban on the use of rhino and tiger parts for medicinal and scientific purposes.

With tigers and rhinos already under threat of extinction from poachers and the illegal wildlife trade, the decision prompted anger from wildlife and environmental groups with WWF warning of “devastating consequences”.

Both tigers and rhinos are listed in Appendix 1 of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), meaning all commercial trade is banned.

About 3,800 tigers are thought to be left in the wild, with at least 7,000 of the big cats kept in captive breeding facilities, mainly in China and Vietnam.

About 30 percent of seized tiger products come from tiger farms, according to TRAFFIC, which monitors and investigates the illegal wildlife trade.

China and Vietnam are the main markets for rhino horn and some 2,149 rhino horns were seized by law enforcement between 2010 and 2017. TRAFFIC estimates three rhinos are poached for their horns every day in South Africa.

China insisted any illegal trade in wildlife would be “dealt with severely”.

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