Should South Africa Legalise the Rhino Horn Trade?

Rhino hunting has reached record heights in South Africa, prompting the government to address requests for establishing a legal market of Rhino horns to combat poaching.

Rhinos are currently on the ICUN Red List as critically endangered. Conservation society WWF estimated the Black Rhino population has decrease by 95% since the 1980s, from 75,000 to 4,500 in South Africa today. Currently, 80% of Rhinos are found on state owned reserves, their vast size makes them difficult to patrol and prime hunting territory for poachers. The Rhinos are tranquilised, their horns brutally chain-sawed off and left to bleed out through their mutilated heads – a long and excruciating death. More than 440 Rhinos were poached in 2011 – their horns removed for sale predominantly on the Asian and Middle Eastern black markets. The horns, used primarily for ornamental and medicinal purposes, sell for approximately $35,055 US per kilo, making Rhino horns a multi-billion dollar illegal industry on the global market.

Currently, four main conservation tactics are being used with little to unknown success. First, trade regulations have been implemented. The buying or selling of Rhino horns is prohibited under CITES. This form of attack has not proven effective, only minimal success has been gained through US trade tactics with China. Second, protected areas are set up and Armed Guards are used to protect Rhinos in the wilderness. However, poachers have been known to kill guards for the prize of a Rhinos horn, limiting the success of this approach. Third, some activists have taken the extreme action of attempting to safely dehorn Rhinos to discourage poachers from killing. However the success of this method is unknown, there is speculation that dehorning impairs their ability to reproduce and protect themselves and young. Fourth, a number of zoos and wilder life reserves have set up captive breeding programs to boost population numbers. While all approaches have benefits, neither individually or combined have the techniques managed to eradicate or lower poaching and increase the population size.

A number of Conservation Economists and private owners are pushing for a legal trade of Rhino horns to combat the illegal black market trade. Charles Jonga, Director of Campfire Association Zimbabwe argues South Africa “must be open to the idea of engaging with the markets and finding ways which would make Africa benefit from the demand”. The South African Department of Environmental Affairs recently commissioned a study into the legalising the Rhino horn trade and its effects. The department’s spokesman, Albie Modise stated the government “would consider this [legalising the Rhino horn trade] if we get authentic scientific backing that this would be effective”.

Legalising the Rhino horn market would make the government responsible for meeting demand. This would be possible given the South African government currently holds millions of dollars in confiscated Rhino horns. Some suspect that if the government took control of the market, they would be able to offer a competitive price to consumers, effectively making poaching obsolete. By offering a lower and legal price to consumer, poachers will most likely not take the risk of breaking the law to meet competitive prices. This in turn would save Rhino’s lives in the wilderness, allowing populations to grow. It has been suggested the funds raised by the sales of horns would go towards Rhino conservation.

However, conservation groups such as WWF criticise the idea, arguing it will setback decades of hard conservation work and destabilise the Rhino population. Morne du Plessis of WWF in South Africa said “we understand the need to come up with new ways of combating the rhino horn trade but we are against the notion that legalising it is the answer”. He went onto voice the WWF concerns that the market contains too many unknowns, which the government would not be able to control or grow to understand. Ultimately, many conservationists fear legalising the market will further disadvantage the Rhino.

Legalising the trade cannot be a permanent fix. While in the short run it may reduce poaching, there are no long term benefits, only losses. By legalising the trade, the number of consumers will grow as those unwilling to buy illegally will now join the market – demand will increase. However the government stockpile is finite, once stocks disappear there will be a larger market, with more consumers and only poachers to supply the horns. In the long rune, more horns will be demanded than the government can supply therefore more Rhinos will be poached to meet demand and the species will be facing even lower population numbers.

Given the government is unable to control poaching they must target the consumers. Reduce the number of consumers and increase the Rhino population. The questions is – how? Considering the high value put on Rhino horns for medicinal purposes in Asia and ornamental in the Middle East if is difficult to see how the consumer market can be reduced. To save Rhinos from extinction changes must be made however a method to do so is yet to be found.

Esther Ziebell