South Africa Takes Step Toward Legalizing Rhino Horn Trade

Some say lifting the ban on domestic trade is the only way to save rhinos from extinction.
White rhinos. (Photo: Wolfgang Kaehler/Getty Images)
Nov 28, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

The fate of the rhinoceros is in the hands of South Africa, home to 80 percent of the global population of the species. But how exactly to go about protecting the horned creatures from ruthless poachers is still up for debate.

After a more than six-year moratorium, a South African court ruled this week to lift the ban on domestically trading rhino horns, AFP reports.

Both conservationists and rhino breeders are concerned about the rise in rhino poaching, but while the former feel lifting the ban will exacerbate the existing slaughter, the latter believe a legal trade will stem the illegal market.

Last year, a record 1,215 rhinos were killed in South Africa—a dramatic increase from the less than 100 killed in 2008, before the ban was enacted. This year’s poaching rate is on track to surpass last year’s number.

Residing Judge Francis Legodi said the government had failed to gain public approval before enacting the moratorium and also tied the surge in poaching to the current ban. The environment ministry plans to launch an appeal, which would keep the ban in place at least for the time being.

John Hume, one of the rhino game breeders who took the case to court and the largest rhino farmer in the world, said that without selling the horns, he cannot offset the cost of raising the animals, including feeding them and providing security protection.

“I am completely convinced that what I am doing is the only way to save the rhino from extinction,” Hume told the Los Angeles Times. He plans to sell some 300 horns to local buyers and use the proceeds to keep his business going.

While poachers kill the rhinos and take their horns, breeders can subdue the animals with anesthesia and then saw the horns off. But conservationists note that the small group of breeders like Hume stand to make a great deal of money if they’re able to sell the horns, which are in high demand in both China and Vietnam. Valued at $133 per gram—higher than the price of gold—the keratin horns are used as a cure-all in traditional Asian medicines. At the same time, continuing the trade erroneously implies that the horns are in fact valuable. Although keratin, the same material that makes up human fingernails, finds its way into many a hair- and nail-strengthening beauty product across the West, numerous studies have found that there is no medicinal benefit in rhino horn.

Many also fear that a legal trade could serve as a cover-up to black market poachers to sell overseas.

“South Africa does not have a market for rhino horn domestically, and the opening of trade locally will only lead to the smuggling of rhino horn by criminal syndicates into the black market in Vietnam and China,” Allison Thomson, founder of an antipoaching group in South Africa, told The Associated Press, adding that she was “bitterly disappointed” by the court’s decision.

Although Hume agrees that some of the horns will undoubtedly make their way out of the country and into Asia, he doesn’t have a problem with that idea.

“If we put five tons of horn into Vietnam in a single year, there’s no doubt in my mind that will diminish poaching,” he told the Times. “It’s not whether we supply the trade but the way we supply the trade that is the problem.”

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora will meet in Johannesburg next year and could possibly lift the global ban on trading rhino horns, which has been in place since 1977.