Animal Protection > Worldwide Actions > South Africa
Rhino poaching: to legalise or not?

March 12 2012 at 07:42am
By Tony Carnie

From a previous average of less than 20 rhino poachings a year, the
number of rhino killings in SA began to rocket steadily from 2008, to
reach a killing rate of 448 in 2011. Already, nearly 100 rhinos have
been killed in the first two and a half months of 2012.

More than 30 years after governments agreed to ban the international
trade in rhino horns, the slaughter rate has got much worse, not better.

More than 95 percent of Africa's remaining rhinos were wiped out within
20 years of the 1977 ban.

And in SA, the largest-remaining bastion of wild rhino protection,
massive holes have been punched through the law enforcement barriers
which once protected the country's rhinos from ruthless underworld crime

More than 1 000 rhinos have been slaughtered here in just four years.
Every year the death rate climbs steadily, despite government pledges to
tackle horn poachers head-on.

Inevitably, this mounting death rate has triggered renewed calls for a
revision of rhino-protection strategies - including a highly
controversial proposal to lift or relax the global trading ban.

The broad theory is that legalising the sale of SA's massive rhino horn
stockpiles could help to drive down soaring black market prices and
reduce the need to poach or kill living rhinos.
NM hornless 1.jpg

The latest victim of poaching was this white rhino who was shot and and
de-horned at the Mpofini private game reserve near Vryheid on February
20, 2012. Picture: The Vryheid Herald

The Vryheid Herald

So far the national government has not given any firm signal on whether
it will support the proposal, but the Department of Environmental
Affairs opened the door to this option last September when it
commissioned two new studies to probe the likely impacts of opening up a
legal national and world trade in rhino horn.

The ban has been in place since 1977 when 175 member states of the
Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) voted to
halt the global sale of rhino products.

The proposal to lift this ban is not new. Nor is it motivated solely by
private sector interests which stand to profit financially.

More than a decade ago - long before the current poaching crisis hit SA
- former Natal Parks Board chief executive George Hughes said the ban
was well-intentioned, but ultimately the strategy had failed to protect

"Traditional Chinese medicine is an unbelievably powerful force and
cannot simply be legislated into extinction," Hughes said.

Late last year, rhino conservation stalwart Ian Player also called for
an urgent debate on re-opening the legal trade.

"There is much opposition from the animal rights movement, with which I
have sympathy. but we have to devise other means of ensuring the
survival of rhinos. Conservation agencies are desperately short of
money. Surely it is in the interests of both the rhino and conservation
economics that we legalise the sale of rhino horn accumulated through
natural mortality," suggested Player.

Over the past year, the proposal has been debated informally at several
gatherings. Here is a brief summary of some of the positions "for",
"against" or "in-between":


JOBURG-based private investment manager Michael Eustace has likened the
Cites rhino horn trading ban to the failed alcohol prohibition era in
the US.

And, just as many Americans continued to demand alcohol when it was
against the law, so too would many Chinese continue to demand rhino
horn, heedless of Western opposition based on animal rights, morality or

"Banning trade has been ineffectual and has pushed the trade of rhino
horn underground and money is being made by criminals rather than parks.
To hope that things will change for the better while following the same
failed strategy is senseless," he argued at a workshop at the SA Mint
Company in Pretoria last year.

Instead, Eustace argues that SA should set up a Central Selling
Organisation (CSO) similar to what the De Beers group has used to
control world diamond sales.

The organisation would be owned by government and private rhino owners
on a pro rata basis and hold monthly sales at OR Tambo International
Airport. Payments would be made directly to rhino owners rather than
criminal syndicates.

All horns would be properly marked and have a DNA signature so their
origin could be traced and proved.

According to Eustace, selling horns under these conditions would
eliminate the possibility of corruption and horn laundering.

Most of the buyers would be Chinese state-owned pharmaceutical
companies, which would retail traditional rhino horn medicine at a 100
percent profit.

Such profit levels would ensure that the Chinese government clamped down
on illegal rhino horn markets.

He estimates that SA could supply at least 600 horns every year from
natural rhino deaths and historical stockpiles, while private rhino
owners could provide another 1 000 horns a year by regular horn

"This means that, if necessary, we could supply twice the current demand
without any killing."

Michael 't Sas-Rolfes, a Cape Town conservation economist, also argues
that a legally structured rhino trading system could offer a more
effective and lasting solution to the escalating poaching crisis.

First, trade would be out in the open and the black-market price would
almost certainly drop. Secondly, the sustainable supply of rhino horns
would reduce and possibly eliminate incentives for criminals and
speculators to stockpile horns.

Thirdly, legal suppliers of rhino horns would be guaranteed an income,
some of which could be invested in improved rhino protection and
breeding rates.

Sceptical or against

For many wildlife lovers, combining commercial profit and nature
conservation can spell a dangerous mix. They fear that farming the rhino
for its horns could transform one of Africa's Big Five species into
little more than a domestic pig or chicken.

Opponents doubt that commercial horn trading will shut down the black
market, and believe that adding extra supplies to the market will simply
feed the fires of demand.

Trade sceptics and prohibitionists are also worried that legal trading
could harm rhino conservation efforts in much of Africa and Asia by
allowing criminals to continue laundering illegal horns.

According to wildlife conservationist Chris Mercer, rhino farming will
"take the wild out of wildlife".

"Farming rhinos will certainly increase numbers, but breeding animals in
relatively small camps for their horns has nothing to do with
conservation, and everything to do with factory farming."

While the arguments in favour of a Central Selling Organisation sounded
plausible, Mercer said that any attempt to legalise the trade rested on
the assumption that governments and the private sector were
incorruptible, whereas corruption was endemic in many parts of the world.

He also doubts whether releasing new horn stocks would cause black
market prices to nosedive, or put an end to hoarding and speculation.

"The 'economic' approach tries to justify animal exploitation by
numbers, both animals and dollars. But numbers alone are hopelessly
inadequate to understand environmental degradation, or to fight it.

"This narrow economic approach could be used by drug and human
traffickers as well as car hijackers to justify their abominable

Margot Stewart, a wildlife lover who gave evidence at the recent
Parliamentary portfolio committee hearing on rhino poaching, questioned
who would benefit most from a legalised horn trade.

"This potential gain is destined for the pockets of a few unscrupulous
'feudal lords'. These are the people who tickle our ears and are behind
the drive to legitimise the trade in rhino horn and they have been
stockpiling in anticipation of this."

David Balfour, manager of scientific services for the Eastern Cape Parks
and Tourism Agency, is not opposed to selling the horns from rhinos
which die of natural causes, nor to the concept of rhino-farming in
China and other user countries.

However, he is opposed to any commercial horn farming within SA, fearing
that captive-breeding for profit could put the genetic integrity of wild
rhinos at risk. - The Mercury

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