The government of South Africa recently closed its public comment period regarding a proposal to legalize the domestic trade of rhino horn. Under the proposed legislation, foreigners with a permit would be able to export up to two horns for “personal purposes.” The following is a statement from Philip Muruthi, vice president for species protection from the African Wildlife Foundation:
African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) urges the government of South Africa to step up its leadership in African rhino conservation by shutting down the proposed new law to allow trade and export of rhino horn for personal purposes. International trade in rhino horn was banned in 1977, and South Africa banned domestic trade in 2009.
Amidst escalating levels of illegal rhino horn trafficking, AWF does not believe that there exist adequate mechanisms at any level—local, national, regional or international—to control the proposed legal trade.
Recent events, such as the extraordinary poaching of rhino at a French zoo, show that rhino are still under heavy threat of poaching and protection must be tightened, not relaxed—without exception. For rhino, there currently is no realistic scope for achieving a sustainable balance between production and supply of horn. Decisions about whether sustainable trade is viable in an endangered species and its parts must be based on the species biology, trends in illegal killing and the value of the product.
Indeed, South Africa hosted the 17th Conference of the Parties of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Johannesburg in October. Parties to the treaty turned down Swaziland’s proposal for limited legal trade in rhino horn on the international market. At the same conference, South Africa was commended for not presenting a proposal to trade in rhino horn.
Legalized ivory trade over the past 25 years has proven ineffective in stemming elephant poaching in Africa. The current illegal trade in rhino horn, similar to the illegal ivory trade, is perpetuated by illegal syndicates that would continue to poach rhinos and trade in horn on the black market in defiance of a legal system. Meanwhile, a legal trade would serve to complicate the efforts of law enforcement officials in Africa and Asia by creating a veneer of legality behind which illegal activities would persist. It would sow confusion among the law enforcement community around what constitutes legal vs. illegal horn.
Legalizing any rhino horn trade would be sending 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. Finally, pushing a new law to trade in rhino horn is a distraction, a waste of political capital demonstrated at the most recent CITES conference and divisive at a time when stakeholder unity is needed to tackle the poaching crisis.
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