Legalising the Rhino Horn Trade: Is it the Way Forward?

09th Apr 2015 Sustainability


South Africa’s move to consider the legalisation of rhino horn trade has sparked a huge debate between the pro-trade advocates and the anti-trade counterparts. While the former claim that legalising rhino horn trade will end the rampant killing of the animals, the latter argue that legalisation could produce catastrophic results leading to the very extinction of the species. The Committee of Inquiry appointed by the South African Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) has been constituted to determine the feasibility of trade in rhino horn. The Committee has been designated with the task of weighing both technical and strategic matters involving this issue, in consultation with the relevant stakeholders, before submitting its recommendations to the Inter-Ministerial Committee (IMC).

If the 21 member Committee adopts a pro-trade stance, South Africa might put forward a formal proposal for the legalisation of rhino horn trade at the next meeting of the Conference of Parties (CoP17) of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 2016. This proposal needs to be endorsed by a two-thirds majority of parties for adoption. Given the complex nature of the rhino horn trade issue, it is extremely interesting to see how South Africa will bring up this issue at CoP17.

Background to the Rhino Horn Trade Issue

The rapid rise in rhino poaching which threatened to push the survival of the species to the brink of extinction caused the international trade ban in rhino horn by CITES in 1977. There is a huge market for rhino horn in certain Asian countries such as Vietnam and China where it is believed that this product possesses medicinal properties. Domestic trade in rhino horn continued unabated within the borders of South Africa for decades despite the international trade ban. It was only in 2009 that South Africa introduced a domestic moratorium on trade in rhino horn in response to suspicious activities involving illegal export of rhino horn to such Asian countries. The persistent demand for rhino horn in these countries could not be met owing to the international trade ban and therefore, the buyers used South Africa’s legal internal permitting system to buy the product either directly from the private rhino owners or indirectly through intermediaries, according to a DEA report.

South Africa is currently facing a severe rhino poaching crisis. Despite the domestic moratorium on rhino horn trade, the problem associated with rhino poaching has only exacerbated according to some rhino experts. In 2009, while 122 rhinos were killed by the poachers, by 2011, the number had escalated to 448, of which 429 were white rhinos and 19 were black rhinos. The number of killings is sharply rising with a record number of 1215 rhinos killed in 2014, a 21% increase from the previous year. The figure below represents the number of rhinos killed by poaching in South Africa from 2009-2014.

Screenshot from 2015-04-13 09:57:04
Source : Government of South Africa

According to TRAFFIC, the world’s largest wildlife trade monitoring network, the factors which are aggravating the poaching crisis in South Africa include corruption, internal institutional lapses and judicial delays in key prosecutions. In one of its reports, TRAFFIC mentions that the presence of a mix of corrupt government officials, unscrupulous wildlife professionals and hardened Asian criminal syndicates creates a ‘perfect storm’ for unleashing havoc on South Africa’s rhino populations.

South Africa houses more than 80% of the world’s rhinos and has already initiated the process of relocating a number of rhinos from the famed Kruger National Park (approximately the size of Wales/Israel) to unspecified neighbouring countries in an attempt to curtail poaching. The Kruger National Park which is home to around 9000 rhinos witnesses the majority of the killings in its poaching ‘hot spoonets’.one

The conservationists estimate that a kilo of the rhino horn costs around $65,000 which is more than the cost of platinum or gold. This figure represents the price of a kilo of rhino horn in comparison with a kilo of platinum, gold, cocaine and elephant ivory.

Source: The Council of Foreign Relations, The Guardian and U.S. Drug Enforcement. Administartion


  Traditionally, rhino horn was used as medicine in these Asian countries, however, in the contemporary setting rhino horn is being promoted as a cure to life-threatening diseases such as cancer. Besides the lure of the rhino horn among the terminally-ill, according to the TRAFFIC report, certain group of the affluent class in Vietnam are becoming significant consumers of this product in a bid to exhibit their wealth, status and influence. The increasing demand for rhino horn stemming from these fast-growing Asian economies has triggered the spread of highly profitable and organized international criminal poaching syndicates who deploy advanced technologies ranging from silenced weapons, night vision scopes, darting equipment and helicopters to carry out their nefarious activities. According to Dr Joseph Okori, head of WWF’s African Rhino Programme: “The African rhino is under serious threat from poachers who have intensified their search of rhino for their horns since 2007, driven by growing market demands in Asia.”

Entering the Pro-Trade versus Anti-Trade Debate

Historically, South Africa has an extremely impressive record in conservation efforts but the dreadful poaching crisis is quickly spiraling out of control. Further, the government’s action to curb poaching by weighing the viability of legalising trade in rhino horn has not augured well with the anti-trade advocates. According to Chilean ecologist Cristian Bonacic, who was at the forefront of developing best practice guidelines for sustainable and ethical use ofthree vicuñas, there are inherent differences between the vicuñas and the rhinos with regard to sustainable management practices, however, there are parallels which can be drawn between the two. In one of his interviews, he argues that legal trade in vicuña wool has in fact led to more poaching and if trade in rhino horn is legalized, it could spell doom for the species. The opening of the vicuña wool industry through legal channels created———Image source: Wikipedia————————an upsurge in demand which was not anticipated.

Increasing demand for vicuña wool has triggered more poaching activities. Over the last ten years, Argentina, Peru, Bolivia, and Chile have witnessed a sharp rise in poaching.

He argues that as there are lesser rhinos than there were vicuñas at the start of their legal trade, if there is an increase in poaching following trade legalisation even for a brief period and at a relatively lower level, it could be catastrophic for the rhino populations. Further, the practice of horn harvesting for fuelling the legal trade demands might be disastrous for the rhinos’ mating habits, communication and adaptive response mechanism, therefore, creating a very unsustainable environment for the rhinos.

Another parallel to this rhino problem can be drawn from the issue involving trade in ivory. Two years after the sale of stockpiles, Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) investigations in 2010 and 2011 revealed that instead of curbing the poaching crisis, the sale of the stockpiles simply escalated the demand for illegal ivory. The market, instead of being flooded with legal ivory, was swamped with illegal ivory, escalating the price of legal ivory to as high as 7000 US dollars per kilo. These findings were subsequently supported by research and investigations conducted by independent consultants and the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Several conservationists argue that an attempt to legalise trade in rhino horn will yield disastrous outcomes while doing nothing to stem the expanding poaching crisis.

The pro-trade advocates, on the other hand, argue that legalising trade would provide both public and private custodians the means to finance the conservation and protection efforts, while facilitating the payment of compensation to the farmers and breeders for the loss of rhinos. Save The Rhino, an organization which works to conserve viable populations of critically endangered rhinos in Africa and Asia has weighed several possibilities for giving effect to legal trade in rhino horn such as a one off sale of rhino horn stockpiles, domestic trade in rhino horn, and a semi-permanent international CITES regulated sale. However, all these methods offer very simplistic solutions to a very broad complex problem.

In a controversial pro-trade paper centred on this issue which was published in the Science journal, the lead author Dr Duan Biggs argues that the international trade ban has failed to meet the insatiable global demand and that this demand can be stemmed by humanely shaving the horns of live rhinos. The scientists argue that the risks associated with horn harvesting are minimal and as the rhinos grow about 0.9 kilogram of horn each year (rhino horn is largely composed of keratin, a protein also found in human nails and hair), enough material can be generated to meet the global demand. Internationally respected provincial conservation agencies such as Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, SA Hunters and Game Conservation Association have voiced their support in favour of legalisation of trade in rhino horn. According to these conservation agencies, international and controlled trade in rhino horn is the only realistic solution to ensure the survival of both black and white rhinos in the African continent.


In a paper which focuses on the landscape level-impacts of white rhinos in the Kruger National Park in South Africa, published in the Journal of Ecology, the authors argue that the rhino poaching problem not only threatens the conservation of the species but also has the potential to harm the savanna ecosystem dynamics. The selective grazing habits of the rhinos help to increase biodiversity in the savanna grasslands and as the savannas are home to numerous other species, the rapidly deteriorating poaching crisis could adversely affect the savanna ecology. Therefore, this problem needs to be dealt with urgently.

Experts, scientists, ecologists, private reserves and conservation groups have tried to address the rhino poaching issue by proposing various suggestions and solutions. However, there is a growing awareness that there is no ‘silver bullet’ to end the rhino poaching crisis. A mix of various wildlife conservation and protection strategies need to be adopted to control the problem. If South Africa decides to legalise trade in rhino horn, it cannot realise its objectives without the support and assistance of its largest consumer bases, China and Vietnam. It is pertinent to note that as there is a glaring lack of medical evidence to prove that rhino horn possesses medicinal properties, allowing legal trade in rhino horn would only send the wrong signal to these high-growth Asian economies. Therefore, in order to ensure that the rhinos live in a sustainable environment in the African continent, it is essential that South Africa sets an appropriate example by considering the anti-trade arguments seriously before jumping into the pro-trade bandwagon.