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As Rhino Poaching Surges, South Africa Proposes Legalized Trade in Precious Horns

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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white rhinocerosThe South African government released two important and shocking news items last week. The first announcement revealed that 461 rhinos had been poached in the country to date as of July 3—more than were killed in all of 2011. Poachers target the animals for their horns, which are valued in China and Vietnam for their purported (but nonexistent) medicinal qualities. The second announcement was a proposal for the legalization of rhino-horn trade, which is currently illegal under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

The announcements came from Edna Molewa, South Africa’s Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs, who said she will formally make the proposal at the 2016 meeting of CITES delegates (known as the Convention of the Parties or COP), which will take place in South Africa that year. Molewa praised her country’s efforts to conserve rhinos—a true success story, as both African species were nearly wiped out a few decades ago—while saying that this success has also made the animals targets for criminal gangs. “South Africa cannot continue to be held hostage by the syndicates slaughtering our rhinos,” she said in a prepared statement to the media, adding that a “well-regulated trade system” would help all future conservation efforts.

rhino poachedSouth Africa reportedly will not seek a full legalization of all rhino-horn trade but a one-time sale of current stockpiles. The South African government has stockpiled more than 16,400 kilograms of rhino horns—mostly confiscated from poachers—while private owners possess about 2,000 kilograms more—ironically, mostly horns that have been removed from live animals to make them less attractive to poachers. With rhino horns fetching anywhere from $10,000 to $40,000 a kilogram, the South African government could net half a billion dollars or more from the proposed sale. Private ranchers, who own much of South Africa’s rhino population, would also benefit from this windfall. In fact, many ranchers have been pushing for a sale like this.

South Africa’s deputy director general for biodiversity, Fundisile Mketeni, said monies from the one-off sale “should go to conservation”—note that he didn’t say it would—but experts and conservation organizations say the sale would do little more than feed the growing desire for rhino horns and make the situation much, much worse in the long run.

History backs them up on this point. Similar one-off sales of ivory to Japan in 1999 and China in 2008 have been linked to the resultant increased demand for ivory in Asia, which has driven elephant poaching across Africa to crisis proportions in the past decade. At the time, proponents of those sales said flooding the market with stockpiled ivory would lower prices and therefore eliminate the incentive to poach more elephants. The opposite happened and prices soared. South Africa now argues that putting more than 18,000 kilograms of rhino horn up for sale would glut the market, lower prices and save more rhinos. This is an argument we have heard before.

rhino horns UK home officeMeanwhile, any legal rhino horn market only supports the misconception that this keratinous body part has medicinal qualities. In China and especially Vietnam rhino horn powder is sold as a cancer cure and an after-party drug to remove hangovers. Rhino horns have no such abilities. Why support the misplaced economic value of something that has no practical function for humans, and why support the utterly false belief that rhino horn could cure desperately sick people of their cancer? As WildAid Executive Director Peter Knights wrote on the organization’s blog, “Legitimizing and promoting demand for rhino horn would inevitably create a far larger consumer base and once this genie is out we could never re-cork the bottle if the experiment went wrong.”

And while South Africa may be home to 73 percent of the world’s rhinos, will consumers care if their rhino horn powder is sustainably sourced, which species it comes from or if it originates from South Africa? Poachers don’t care: they’ll target the animals that are easiest to kill and yield the biggest profits, so they’ll take whatever animals they can get. A renewed rhino-horn trade could increase the threats against the Sumatran rhino, which now numbers fewer than 275 animals, or the Javan rhino, which has fewer than 50 surviving members of its species. Those species can’t handle any increase in poaching levels.

So, would legalizing rhino horn trade put an end to poaching? I doubt it. Putting a “well-regulated trade system” in place would probably take years and high levels of international cooperation. Meanwhile the criminal mechanisms already exist to poach and smuggle rhino horn and it seems highly doubtful that they would transition to a legal system; instead, they would continue to kill and smuggle through existing channels while the news that rhino horns were about to become legal served to increase their market.

South Africa is obviously desperate to protect its rhinos. Poaching hurts not just animals but people, and dozens of guards and rangers have been murdered protecting the rhinos in their charge. Guarding and protecting every rhino is next to impossible, as most live in gigantic national parks or wide-ranging reserves. Corruption exists at every level, from guards and police who take bribes from poachers to veterinarians who provide the drugs used to take down rhinos.

say no to rhino hornLegalizing rhino horn, however, does not appear to be the answer. Instead, the international community needs to target the consumer demand for rhino horn and end it. Rhino horns are useless to every human but they are essential for rhinos, which use them to defend themselves and root up food. Eliminating the market for rhino horns is the only way we’re going to ensure the long-term survival of these threatened species.

One last note: in the eight days after the legalization announcement an additional 19 rhinos were killed in South Africa, bringing this year’s total to 480. Only 140 people have been arrested for the crimes so far this year.

Photos: A southern white rhinoceros photographed in Kruger National Park by Sheree Zielke. Rhino horns confiscated from smugglers by UK Home Office. A poached rhino © Martin Harvey / WWF-Canon. An ad campaign targeting consumers in Vietnam by WWF and TRAFFIC.

Previously in Extinction Countdown:

John R. Platt About the Author: Twice a week, John Platt shines a light on endangered species from all over the globe, exploring not just why they are dying out but also what's being done to rescue them from oblivion. Follow on Twitter @johnrplatt.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. rcguru46 11:51 am 07/12/2013

    any legal trade will just hasten the demise of this animal!!!!!!!!

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  2. 2. rcguru46 11:52 am 07/12/2013

    greegy ba$tards

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  3. 3. rcguru46 11:53 am 07/12/2013

    just destroy the ivory to stop the market for this travesty of justice!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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  4. 4. SciNotLeftism 9:29 am 07/13/2013

    Why not raise rhinos and elephants as livestock?

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  5. 5. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 10:13 am 07/13/2013

    I hear that question surprisingly often. Elephants and rhinos lack the characteristics that make good livestock animals — they don’t breed quickly, they mature slowly, they have long gestation periods and small numbers of young, and they are incredibly expensive (not to mention dangerous) to keep in captivity. Elephant gestation takes two years — and that’s in the wild. In captivity, conception is incredibly rare. The National Zoo talks about the difficulty in breeding elephants in captivity here, and the Zoological Society of London talks about captive rhino breeding here — both links will show you that it’s a very difficult proposition that actually costs significantly more money than preserving wild populations.

    Beyond those challenges, the goal of conservation is not to keep animals alive in captivity, it’s preserving wild populations in their native environments. Not everything on Earth should be exploitable for profit.

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  6. 6. C. S. P. Schofield 1:22 pm 07/13/2013

    I must respectfully disagree with John R. Platt. Rhinos are being farmed;
    (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2195803/Farming-rhinos-legalising-sale-horns-worth-gold-save-extinction-claims-farmer.html). Their horns can be harvested without killing the animal (whether without HARM I can’t tell from my sources). It is easy for Westerners, who do not live in Africa and who therefore do not directly bear the burden, to say that African species must be preserved in the wild. That is not our land, and we, who have had our industrial revolution, and who clear-cut our own continent in the process, are in a piss poor position to dictate to other, browner, people.

    What interests me is what the persistent demand for Rhino horn (and similar products) says about health care in Asia…..

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  7. 7. vdinets 6:03 pm 07/13/2013

    Fortunately, this disastrous idea will never be accepted by CITES (unless it’s way more corrupt than I think).

    Farming rhinos will never have any serious effect on the market because the yield is extremely low. Also, it’s a risky long-term investment because rhinos take a long time to grow and the stupid Asian fad might end as suddenly as it began.

    But I have to say that prosecuting 140 people isn’t that bad.

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  8. 8. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 10:57 pm 07/13/2013

    I agree that this is unlikely to pass CITES — but then again, CITES approved two ivory sales, to disastrous results. Hopefully they learned from the lesson.

    140 people arrested is good, but far from great. Each poaching takes several people, and then there’s dozens of people beyond that as the horns get smuggled. Plus, the conviction rate is still way too low.

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  9. 9. David Cummings 6:36 am 07/14/2013

    “What interests me is what the persistent demand for Rhino horn (and similar products) says about health care in Asia…..” — 6. C. S. P. Schofield

    It’s not what it says about the health care in Asia… it’s what it says about IGNORANCE in Asia.

    Every country and culture has their points of ignorance. In many Asian societies (I particularly know the Chinese) males tend to become obsessed with ignorant beliefs in the power of exotic animal “substances”.

    The men buying powdered Rhino horn (or however its sold) aren’t poor people lacking health care. They are often rich (or middle class) men lacking brain power.

    It’s sickening. Like Koreans eating dogs only much, much worse. As much as we may abhor dog-eating, dogs will never be eaten into extinction (and dog meat does, at least, fill the stomach). But this obsession with “powerful medicines” — that in fact do absolutely nothing — is going to end up wiping out whole species.

    I have been to banquets in China where the host bragged about all the endangered species in the dishes in the table. Made me want to puke. Because of circumstances I merely politely declined and didn’t go on a loud anti-Chinese rant. (And I’m not anti-Chinese. I love the Chinese. I just hate this aspect that is prevalent in their culture.)

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  10. 10. Rhino 1:22 pm 07/24/2013

    We just completed one step forward for President Obama
    Executive Order against wildlife crime that we already
    made one backward.
    And the latter is a leap, unless rectified promptly.
    Politicians have in their hands the future of our wildlife.
    Regrettably they always manage to contradict themselves
    or each other. The South African statement of intention to sell in a once-off sale – after 2016 ! – their 20 tons of Rhino horns stockpiles, (valued 1 billion dollars), is ill-fated.
    Why not give poachers and traffickers a longer notice
    so they can better speed up the massacre ?
    “South Africa cannot continue to be held hostage
    by syndicates who are slaughtering our rhinos” said the
    South African Minister of Environment.
    So why not let the Colombian government sell legally
    cocaine or some Asian countries opium ? After all they are all “held hostages” and those products are in great demand like the rhino horn.
    How they expect to benefit the Rhinos, pouring into the market over 20 tons of horns in one auction ? Increasing 20 folds the consumers number ?
    There isn’t any logic… except 1 billion dollars
    for Rhinos conservation… of course only available when
    they will be exterminated.
    Can the decision makers understand that “political correctness” is unpractical and useless in such cases ? Wouldn’t it be wiser and effective to negotiate silently a deal with the consuming countries ?

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  11. 11. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 2:54 pm 07/24/2013

    I like your comparison to the drug trade. That analogy makes a lot of sense.

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  12. 12. 14009481UniversityofPretoria 5:47 pm 05/2/2014

    A few years have passed now and the situation has simply gotten worse: more and more animals are being poached each year and the cost to protect these animals rises exponentially each year. So why can’t our (South African) Government get it right to stop this nonsense?
    The reason is actually quite simple: as long as China and other Asian countries continue to get wealthier, with the middle and upper classes increasing dramatically, the demand for rhino horns will not cease. And we can do little about it. Various campaigns have been held to inform the people that the horns are actually just made of keratin, however the conception remains: if I have enough money I will buy some rhino horn, even if I know that it is wrong. But as most people think with anything related to global warming or climate change, they also live under the misconception ‘the little harm that I do will have no greater effect.’
    Being quite knowledgeable about farming, I want to dispute the fact that rhinos cannot be farmed. In South Africa there are vast stretches of land that are suitable for rhino farming, so if there would be just 100 people producing 10 rhinos a year, we could easily supply more rhino horns than are currently being used, and making sure that the money goes into the hands of ‘good people’ at the same time. But then again, there is the concern about this boosting the market for horns and raise prices.
    Secondly, corruption is a massive problem in Africa, also in South Africa. I am convinced that many more poachers can actually be caught and that poaching in general could be stopped to a great extent if border officials, police members or people in the government did not accept bribes from the poachers, or even be involved themselves.

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  13. 13. u14095972 7:13 am 05/3/2014

    I believe that legalizing the trade of rhino horns might actually be a solution.
    If game farm owners make use of specialized vets, the rhino’s horns will be removed without harm. The rhino’s owner can then use the money from the horn, which he sold legally, to upgrade the security of the farm as well as the health of the animal. Also if he promotes that the rhinos on his farm are all dehorned, the rhinos will no longer be a target to poachers. There will simply be no more rhinos to poach.

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  14. 14. JBotha14108942 11:04 pm 05/4/2014

    I have just returned yesterday from a walking trail in the Kruger National Park and the one afternoon our ranger and tracker walking with us, encountered tracks of poachers next to the rhino tracks made earlier the day. We had to return to our base camp immediately for our own safety. You’re lucky if you spot a rhino and events like these make you realise that poachers do not care for human lives or our environment or conservation. They need to be stopped at all costs and we need to eliminate the demand for rhino horn. I do no believe that legalising rhino horn will help as we do not have unlimited rhinos and the horns do not grow fast enough to meet their demands. Rhinos will always be endangered even with their horns removed. They will be killed for the last centimeter of horn and any regrowth of horn. Millions are spend on trackers, prevention, setting up bush camps, transport, equipment…just for the privilege for a few people who can afford it. Time for us to reflect and realise that this needs to be stopped at the source – the demand for the horn!

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