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South Africa Weighs Legalization of Rhino Horn Trade

  • Tuesday, March 24, 2015
  • Nairobi, Kenya
Thandi and her calf

New calf of Thandi, a white rhino who survived a poaching attack at a South African game reserve in 2012. Photo credit: Angie Goody / Kariega Game Reserve Kariega.co.za

A Committee of Inquiry established by South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs will begin hearing expert testimony tomorrow on the subject of legalizing the rhino horn trade as the Southern African country, home to more than 80 percent of the world’s rhinos, grapples with a rhino poaching crisis.

Based on its own investigation and testimony given by experts at the three-day meeting, the Committee will eventually make recommendations on whether South Africa, a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), should submit a proposal to legalize rhino horn trade at CITES’ 17th Conference of Parties meeting in Cape Town next year. Any move to legalize the trade in rhino horn, however, will do more harm than good, says African Wildlife Foundation (AWF).

“Legalizing trade in a product belonging to an animal that is highly threatened would prove disastrous and accelerate rather than curtail rhino poaching in all of Africa,” says African Wildlife Foundation’s senior director of conservation science, Dr. Philip Muruthi. “We understand South Africa’s sense of desperation and the government’s desire to test any strategy to protect its rhinos. We know from the experience with the ivory trade, however, that rhino horn will continue to be trafficked under cover of a legal trade, complicating our efforts to crack down on the illegal trade.” 

AWF opposes any move to legalize trade in rhino horn for the following reasons:

  • There are fewer than 25,000 rhinos remaining in Africa, compared to the tens of millions of existing and prospective rhino horn consumers in demand countries such as Vietnam, a country of 90 million, and China, a country of 1.4 billion. Hence, there is no realistic scope for achieving a sustainable balance between the supply of and demand for rhino horn.
  • 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.
  • Based on the experience with the elephant ivory trade over the last 25 years, legalization as a strategy has proven ineffective in stopping elephant poaching. The only thing that legal trade has done in the case of ivory is complicate law enforcement efforts in combating the illegal trade and removed the stigma once attached to owning, buying and selling ivory. AWF urges simplifying the job of law enforcement with regard to wildlife crime.
  • Given CITES’ one-country/one-vote procedure and the rhino’s highly threatened status, a proposal to legalize rhino horn trade is highly unlikely to pass. Pursuing a proposal to legalize rhino horn is therefore a distraction and a waste of political capital, and it divides conservation stakeholders at a time when there should be unity.

“South Africa has played a central role in African rhino conservation over the past century and is to be commended for its efforts in bringing the white rhino back from certain extinction,” says Muruthi. “We hope the government will continue to lead on this front by heavily investing in those rhino protection strategies that are known to work when they have the full support and political will of the government.”

Through its US$10 million Urgent Response Fund, AWF has been supporting the anti-poaching efforts of two South African reserves with critical populations of black and white rhino. Funds have underwritten the purchase of an anti-poaching helicopter and motorcycles in an effort to increase monitoring and protection coverage in each of the reserves.

“While South Africa is uniquely burdened by the poaching crisis, it need not bear this burden on its own,” says Muruthi. “They have friends; they have partners; and they have the support of the international community, which is mobilized and ready to assist.”

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