Extinction Countdown

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


The 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.

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:

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

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