Sunday, 8 September 2013

Rhino Horn. Legalise it?

With the increase in rhino poaching so too has there been an increase in public sentiment and anger. Now South Africa's decision to approach CITES for permission to sell of stock-piled rhino horn and ivory worth $1 billion (and pursue further avenues for legal trade) is dividing the conservation community. It has been greeted with alarm by hard core conservationists who say it will undermine conservation efforts and put the rhinos in further danger. What is clear though is that even with mounting arrests for poaching, rhino poaching is on the increase despite huge public support for a variety of conservation groups acting for rhinos coupled with action by the government. 

We need to realise that there comes a time when a product becomes worth so much, as in the case of rhino horn, that its becomes worthwhile to obtain under any circumstances. Even if a poaching/smuggling ring looses men and money to obtain the horn, it still only takes a few successful hauls to make it worthwhile and to recoup costs, pay off those who need it, and make a healthy profit on top of it all.

Predictions from South African state officials say that rhinos could be extinct in the wild by 2026 (they were declared extinct in Mozambique earlier this year) - that is given the current state of affairs of no trade and a loosing battle against poaching syndicates. Those concerned about a one off sale of rhino horn point to the 'unknown affects' this sale could have. The only unknown is where the extinction point will be – and it can't be that much worse than 2026. Will there be an increase in poaching post sale or legalisation? Probably – but will populations benefit over the longer term? I'd be willing to bet they would. 

It must be emphasized that a controlled legal trade does not advocate a ‘once-off sale’. This would be counter-productive and could fall into the hands of the illegal syndicates. The idea would be for a ‘Central Selling Organization’ to manage the legal stock on behalf of Government and the private sector (e.g. administered by TRAFFIC). Without this, it would mean that the private sector (and Government) would need to increasingly rely on donor funds for rhino conservation, which may not be sustainable in the long term due to ‘donor fatigue’ and a lack of political will.   

Those against regulated trade point to the problems caused by earlier one off ivory sales. It is argued that elephant poaching has increased Because of the one-off sale, but rhino horn poaching has increased Despite no one-off sale – so we can't conclude anything. Also, ivory and rhino horn are not the same thing – rhino horn is ornamentation and can be removed – repeatedly so if necessary i.e. it can be farmed. While it is argued this leaves rhino vulnerable as they can no longer defend themselves, they really only need their horns to defend themselves against other rhino – if all are dehorned in a certain project area then all are on the same footing. Another emotively controversial animal trade arena is the fur trade – and to my knowledge no animals have become extinct due as a result of legal trade in animal pelts. Fur trade requires the death of the target animals, including everything from minks to seals, while rhino would not have to be killed. Other trade in ‘wild’ animals includes ostrich, crocodile and vicuna (a formally endangered species from the Andes brought back from extinction by legalizing the sale of their wool). 

It is further argued that legitimising trade on one hand undermines attempts to dampen the market on the other. This is not true – the two tactics can work hand in hand, especially if you are telling people that what they are paying the price of gold for is worth nothing more than their hair or fingernail clippings. For instance, while health warnings on cigarette packets aim to dampen the market on an industry with severe human health consequences, high tax provides governments an income. There are many measures in place to reduce the social acceptability of the practise, but the tobacco market remains profitable. The problem at the moment is there is no precedent with endangered species – one is either for or against CITES regulations, so supporting CITES while asking for trade appears contradictory. 

The market for rhino horn in China is mainly for traditional medicines, while in Vietnam it is supposedly being used also as a status conferring gift among diplomats and as a hangover tonic. The book ‘Killing for Profit’ by Julian Rademeyer paints a picture of how serious the problem is. The big problem recently is that human populations are growing and so is the economy, so the demand is not going away in a hurry. However, some people make it sound like the whole of China is licking its lips trying to get hold of South Africa's rhinos. This is not the case – Rhino is “Xi Niu” in Pinyin (simple Chinese). A Google Trends search of this term does not yield enough data to provide information on who is searching for it – which suggests internet enabled China is not really that interested in Rhino generally. China also doesn't make the top ten list of countries conducting searches on “rhino” - South Africa leads the search on this list, and for “rhino horn”. Furthermore, if you do a search for Vietnamese for rhino - “con te giac” there are no links to people trying to sell rhino horn – most are for news items related to tourism or poaching. I'm not denying these countries are not the problem, but the magnitude can be exaggerated when the human population is compared to the rhino population.

From what I understand (and I'm not an expert) there are pretty much no rhino living outside protected areas or privately owned land with vested interests in rhino. Legalising the horn will thus only impact those already targeted within protected areas. Due to the crisis to date, most of the remaining populations have well funded protection and/or ongoing associated conservation projects (see this list 

Rael Loon (author of ‘A conceptual model for assessing the economic feasibility of harvesting African rhino horn’ in the South African Journal of Science) points out that one needs to distinguish between ‘intensive’ populations and ‘extensive’ populations. The argument for legalization is that controlled trade can potentially earn revenues which can be used in securing and growing more intensive populations. The stance the South African government takes will influence to what extent this can take place. Rael believes that intensive populations have the potential in helping to secure wild/extensive populations by cross-subsidizing a portion of the revenue to the protection of rhinos in the key and important populations (as per the IUCN African Rhino Specialist Group). But this is still a long way off and would depend on the legalization proposal being passed. 

So why should South Africa be allowed to make this decision to sell and pursue legal trade in rhino horn? 

There are about 20 000 White Rhino and 5000 Black Rhino left in South Africa. 75% of these live in South Africa according to WWF (90% of all White Rhino), with further major populations in Zimbabwe and Zambia. It is argued that South Africa's activities will endanger populations of rhino in other countries – but with the majority of the rhino in South Africa, and this population now under indefinite siege, South Africa needs to act not only in its best interest, but for the interest of the white and black rhino populations as a whole. 

From a previous fence sitter on legalising trade, the current unsustainable scenario has pushed me to consider what at heart I find distasteful – the farming of rhino for their horns, or sale of products from natural mortality. There is no simple solution when it comes to stopping rhino poaching; it requires education, hard work, perhaps poisoning horns for certain rhino populations, and going where no conservationist has considered going before. So, I'm with the minister and her economist and scientific advisers on this one. Yes, lots needs to be done before legalisation can or will be allowed  - but it will be lose (rhinos) lose (conservation, biodiversity, protected areas, rhino owners) lose (consumers) if we don't. 

But legalisation won’t happen for many years, if at all. That is plenty of time for those working for rhino to show these powerful creatures can still be Africa’s emblems of the wild. So, in the meantime, please support the ‘Rhino Response Strategy’ (see which represents the main conservation NGOs and Government.

Official Rhino poaching statistics can be found here: 

It’s hard not to get emotional about these dopy looking creatures. With about 1000 rhino poached over the last few years in Kruger National Park of a population around 10 000 White Rhino, there is roughly a 10% chance this rhino has been killed by poachers since I took this photo in 2006 (not accounting for natural mortality).

The second largest member of the Big 5, Rhino sightings are a highlight of any safari experience.  

Disclaimer: these opinions are mine and mine alone – they do not represent those of SANBI, University of Cape Town, Birdlife South Africa or anyone else at Blue Hill Escape or affiliated organisations.

Thanks to Rael for comments on the draft version of this post. 


  1. South Africans are amassing quite a few studies which suggest we need to change the way we view rhinos....

  2. 2013 - worst year for rhino's yet:

  3. A peer reviewed article argueing for legalization....


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