An Indian rhinoceros lies dead with its horn missing at Kaziranga National Park. REUTERS/Stringer

China is frequently chastised for helping drive endangered species to extinction, but it's actually more than capable of protecting endangered animals. And there's hope that if popular taste for ivory, shark fin and other luxury goods can be changed and the laws toughened, China could quickly catch up to international standards.

Last year, demand from Chinese buyers fueled a 42 percent increase in rhino poaching in South Africa, as well as the killing of 22,000 African elephants. Media blasted headlines like China is “marching elephants towards extinction,” the Telegraph reported on Thursday, begging an answer to the question, how can the nation that doggedly brought the giant pandas back from the dead turn such a blind eye to the slaughtering of other endangered species?

In fact, China has a stellar record of protecting endangered animals, having stabilized populations of Tibetan antelopes and black snub-nosed monkeys. And it is not altogether fair to blame China alone for driving animals to the precipice of extinction; the United States is the world’s second-largest importer, behind China, of illegally traded animals.

What's different between the case of the giant panda and the tragically poached African animals is that unlike with the giant panda, wealthy Chinese have a penchant for ivory and rhino horns, which they see as status symbols, and their demand keeps the black market prices high and the business lucrative for poachers.

“There are three reasons why animal poaching and illegal animal trading are still quite common,” said Jin Xiaojie, an environmental protection researcher, according to the Telegraph. “The first is high profits. I spoke to bird poachers in Dalian and they said they could earn thousands of pounds for catching an eagle. That is a great deal for someone living in the countryside."

The second reason, according to Jin, is the traditional belief that some endangered animals provide outstanding nutritional value. Thankfully, this is changing as younger generations become more educated.

The third and most important factor, Jin said, is a faltering legal system and an outdated Wildlife Protection Act that fails to adequately punish poachers and smugglers.

“There are cases when poachers and traffickers are put on trial, but very few. Poaching is a crime, but if they catch you setting a trap, that is not a crime in itself,” Jin said. “If you are caught with a wild animal, you can call it a pet. They will confiscate it, but they won’t prosecute you.”

With China's recent breakneck pace of modernization, its legal system has simply not kept up in important areas. Fortunately, for the past three years, that has improved dramatically in terms of public awareness and government support, said Zhou Xiaobo, a conservationist with the China Youth Animal Protection Alliance.

“Before, people saw poaching in Africa as a distant problem, and they did not see animals as being as important as humans,” Zhou said. “Now, ordinary people are paying more attention and criticizing, and the government is taking action. Henan province recently banned the capture of wild birds, for example.”

The Chinese government, too, is being changed for the better by international pressure and activists. As a major investor in Africa, it will pay for the country to be seen as a positive force for change, the Telegraph reported.