Should rhino horn trade be legalised as poaching increases 9,000%? South Africa eyes a red line.

23 MAR 2015 13:25 PHILIP MURUTHI

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THIS week, a Committee of Inquiry established by South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs will begin to hear testimony from the public and a variety of experts on the subject of legalising rhino horn trade.

South Africa is seeking to determine whether a legal trade in rhino horn—currently banned by the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species in Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)—might help protect rhinos at home by undercutting black market prices for rhino horn abroad.

It’s a strategy that the country, which is home to more than 80% of the world’s rhinos, feels compelled to investigate as it confronts the worst of the rhino poaching crisis. Last year 1,215 of South Africa’s rhinos were killed by poachers, which represents a more than 9,000% increase in poaching since 2007.

No one disputes that this level of poaching is unsustainable and that it will undermine the survival of Africa’s white and black rhinos if it continues. A number of governments, private reserves and conservation groups in Africa have grappled with how best to protect their rhinos and have gone to great lengths to do so, in some cases relocating them away from poaching hotspots or placing rhinos in special intensive protection zones and sanctuaries where they can be guarded around the clock.

Amid the pursuit for a strategy or suite of strategies, there has been the question of whether there might be a market-based solution. If demand in countries such as Vietnam or China is driving a black market trade in rhino horn and fueling the poaching in Africa, particularly South Africa, why not legalise the trade? Theoretically this would flood the market with legal rhino horn and undercut black market prices—thereby reducing the trade’s attractiveness for criminals.

Tempting, but won’t work

While it is tempting to want to explore every tried and untried strategy in our efforts to protect Africa’s rhinos, there are a number of reasons why this solution simply will not work.

First and foremost, Africa has fewer than 5,000 black rhinos and about 20,000 white rhinos left. Both species reproduce slowly, and, at today’s poaching rates, they are close to reaching a tipping point wherein rhino mortalities will soon outpace rhino births.

Compare their combined population size of 25,000 with the tens of millions of existing and prospective rhino horn consumers in Vietnam—a country of 90 million—the largest market for rhino horn.

Rhino horn is also increasingly sought after in other countries such as China, which has a population of 1.4 billion people—half of whom are now considered middle class with disposable income. Hence, there is no realistic scope for achieving a sustainable balance between the supply of and demand for rhino horn.

Second, rhino horn is consumed in Vietnam, China and other countries because it is falsely believed to contain medicinal properties, in spite of the fact that there is no scientific evidence for this.

A rhino’s horn is made up of keratin, the same material found in human hair and fingernails. Consuming rhino horn will no more cure a headache or stop cancer than swallowing a thumbnail. But any decision to legalise the rhino horn trade could be interpreted as an endorsement of the erroneous medical claim, which could further stimulate consumer demand.

Case of the elephant

Third, based on the experience with elephant ivory trade over the last 25 years, legalisation has proven ineffective in stopping elephant poaching. Legal trade in ivory is allowed in many countries, and two international sales of ivory have been permitted since CITES installed the ivory trade ban in 1989. In spite of these one-off sales and existing legal ivory markets, a booming illegal trade persists and Africa’s elephants continue to perish.

Moreover, the lust for ivory is as strong as ever. The only thing that legal trade has done is complicate law enforcement efforts in combating the illegal trade and removed the stigma that was once attached to owning, buying and selling ivory. There is also little reason to believe authorities in most countries will be able to monitor and regulate a legal trade in rhino horn when they have proven incapable of effectively regulating and monitoring the legal trade in ivory. Now is the time to simplify, not complicate, the job of law enforcement establishments.

Given their precarious situation, a proposal at the next CITES meeting to legalise rhino horn trade is highly unlikely to pass, especially given the one-country/one-vote procedure. Pursuing a proposal to legalise rhino horn is therefore a distraction and a waste of political capital.

Historically South Africa has played an undisputed role in African rhino conservation and should be commended for pulling the species back from the brink of extinction more than a century ago. The proposal to legalise rhino horn trade, however, would quickly reverse those gains and propel Africa’s rhinos toward certain extinction. While South Africa is uniquely burdened by the rhino poaching crisis, it need not bear this burden alone.

We all have a responsibility to protect the world’s rhinos, and governmental and non-governmental partners are helping to shoulder the responsibility.

Let us put our collective muscle and resources behind strengthening those efforts we know will work: anti-poaching forces outfitted with the latest equipment, technology and knowledge; increased punitive sentencing for poachers and kingpins alike; greater regional communication and coordination among wildlife and law enforcement agencies; and a sustained demand-reduction campaign in consumer countries. Africa’s rhinos don’t need distractions right now but unified action.

-The author is Senior Director of Conservation Science, African Wildlife Foundation

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