The Duke of Edinburgh will meet Chinese government officials to discuss the wildlife crisis caused by the surge in demand for traditional Chinese medicines. He is to host a meeting at Buckingham Palace where he will ask China for support in tackling the "corruption" of some forms of the remedies, which are threatening the existence of several species.
The duke is concerned about the surge in trade for endangered species, particularly tigers and rhinos, whose bones and horns are used in traditional Chinese medicines as aphrodisiacs and purported cures for cancer, arthritis and hangovers. His grandson, the Duke of Cambridge, has also campaigned against the illegal trade in rhino horn, calling those who take part in it "ignorant, selfish and utterly wrong".
The Duke of Edinburgh has invited officials from China's State Administration for Religious Affairs to meet him and the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, an organisation that he founded in 1995 to encourage religious groups to develop environmental programmes. Also present will be representatives from the Taoism faith, a Chinese religion championed by the Duke, which banned the use of endangered species in the remedies among its followers.
A source close to the Duke said: "Prince Philip is not supportive of what he sees as the corruption of traditional Chinese medicine, where people are buying tiger penises for aphrodisiacs and rhino horns to cure cancer, despite the fact there is no proven medicinal quality. "He is trying to encourage the Chinese government to support the Taoists in undermining the incorrect use of traditional Chinese medicine, which is killing the wildlife of the world."
The illegal wildlife trade is estimated to be worth up to pounds 12?billion a year. Tiger bones are used in medicines to treat arthritis and other joint ailments, and rhino horns, which can sell for up to pounds 15,000 each in China and wealthy Asian countries, are used as a treatment for fevers, hangovers and, in some places, are considered an aphrodisiac.
Rhino populations have fallen by 90 per cent since 1970, due mainly to illegal poaching driven by the booming market for traditional Chinese medicine. Statistics released last week by the South African government showed that a record 668 rhinos were killed across the country in 2012, an increase of almost 50?per cent from the previous year.
At the beginning of the 20th century there were 500,000 rhinos in Africa and Asia. Today, there are fewer than 28,000 in the wild. Tiger parts, including bones, teeth, eyes and whiskers, are used to treat ailments from insomnia to toothache.
According to Traffic, an organisation that monitors the wildlife trade, the world's tiger population has fallen by 97% in the past century, with an estimated 3,200 tigers surviving in the wild. The meeting between the 91-year-old Duke and the Chinese government will be seen as a diplomatic boost to Britain's relationship with China.
Tensions have recently escalated between the countries after the Government and the Royal family's ongoing dialogue with the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet and a critic of the Chinese regime. Relations between the Chinese and the Prince of Wales have also been strained since his diary entry relating to the handover of Hong Kong in 1997 caused a diplomatic storm when it was leaked in 2005, revealing that he had referred privately to Chinese leaders as "appalling old waxworks".
During a state visit to China with the Queen in 1986, the Duke was overheard describing Beijing as "ghastly" and during a meeting with a group of British exchange students in the city of Xian, he told them: "If you stay here much longer you'll all be slitty-eyed." His meeting with Chinese government officials will take place on February 20, during the Chinese New Year celebrations.
To mark the occasion, and to thank the Duke for his support, the group of Taoist monks and nuns who will attend are expected to perform a traditional blessing ritual at the Palace. The meeting with the Chinese government indicates that the Duke remains active, often behind the scenes, on matters in which he has a personal interest.
The Duke, who had a series of health setbacks last year and missed part of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations because of a bladder infection, had said that he would begin to scale back his official duties after marking his 90th birthday in 2011. Queen Elizabeth and the Duke are taking their annual break in Sandringham, Norfolk, until February.
Upon their return, the Duke's diary for the next few months is filled with official engagements, indicating that he has little intention of slowing down.