The Constitutional Court in South Africa has reportedly dismissed an appeal by South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs to uphold a moratorium on the domestic trade in rhino horn. The following is a statement from Philip Muruthi, vice president for species protection from the African Wildlife Foundation:
It is a sad day for Africa’s rhino. The dismissal was made on appropriate legal grounds but from a conservation perspective, it is potentially disastrous for Africa’s imperiled rhino population.
Africa’s rhino—the majority of which reside in South Africa—have already suffered record levels of poaching to supply the illicit rhino horn trade. With the moratorium on domestic trade lifted in South Africa, criminal gangs now have legal cover under which to operate. This will complicate the efforts of law enforcement officials in Africa and Asia trying to determine whether rhino horn is being shipped legally.
We have already seen the damage a legal market can do with the elephant ivory trade over the past 25 years. The legal trade has muddied the waters for law enforcement combating illegal ivory trafficking, while removing the stigma once attached to owning, buying and selling ivory. This strategy has ultimately proven ineffective in stopping elephant poaching, and there is no reason to expect a different outcome for Africa’s rhino.
What’s more, a decision to legalize rhino horn trade could be interpreted as an endorsement of the erroneous belief that the horn contains medicinal properties. A rhino’s horn is made up of keratin, the same material found in human hair and nails. Consumers in many Asian countries, however, believe it can cure everything from a headache to cancer. If legalization is perceived as an endorsement, it could stimulate, rather than curtail, demand.
As we’ve stated previously, legalizing any rhino horn trade sends mixed messages to the marketplace at a time when a single, unambiguous message needs to be communicated to the millions—possibly billions—of existing and potential consumers of this product. The dismissal of the appeal is an indisputable setback for those trying to protect Africa’s rhino. We at AWF despair for what this will mean for the survival of the species.
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