Legalising the horn trade

Save the Rhino has not yet reached a conclusion on whether the trade in rhino horn should be legalised, and we are currently considering the cases for and against the proposal.

The debate over whether or not to legalise the trade in rhino horn tends to polarise opinion. Let’s start with the two central tenets that people in all camps can agree on. Firstly, we all want to see more rhinos in more viable populations in the wild. Secondly, we all accept that there is no silver bullet that will solve the rhino poaching crisis: legal trade on its own will not work; anti-poaching patrols on their own will not work. So the question should really be: what combination of approaches should we adopt to ensure that rhino numbers and rhino population numbers continue to grow?

Legalising the trade may be one of these approaches and is currently being heavily discussed by South Africa. There are several different options for a legalised trade in rhino horn. Click on the headers below to read more about the different possibilities. 

1. One off sale of rhino horn stockpiles
2. Domestic trade in rhino horn
3. (Semi) permanent international CITES regulated sale

Rangers Horns Credit Renaud Fulconis

Further reading and recent news stories

Photo credit Renaud Fulconis

(16) Comments

  • Anonymous commenter
    05 May 2013, 05:55

    It should not be legalized, however legally dehorned horns could be dispensed into the market at the full illegal market price to generate income for rhino protection. In such case internationally certified agents could be exempted from the prohibition in order to collect the value without legalizing the trade.

  • Andrew
    12 May 2013, 10:25

    Any approach towards the legalising of the trade has got to be cautious in the extreme. My main concern is that this would be a classic genie out of the bottle case and if legalisation proceeded then it would be near on impossible to reverse or monitor afterwards. If the decision turned out to be wrong then the consequences could be catastrophic. We will have gambled it all on a single roll of the die... and lost.

  • Andrew
    12 May 2013, 11:46

    One of the main proponent arguments for legalising the trade is to flood the market with stockpiles using the laws of supply and demand to drop the value of the horn and thus make it less attractive to poachers. This is too simplistic a rationale however with several potential flaws. There are indeed large stockpiles that if released in one or two batches to the market would be sufficient to depress market value. However, longer term, once the stockpiles are gone will there be sufficient supply to maintain low market pricing? If the prices rise again then the potential for poaching returns. Secondly, just because stockpiles are released, doesn't necessarily mean that they will reach the end market in bulk. Will mechanisms be in place to ensure that the stockpiles are not simply transferred in to the hands of the illegal cartels currently running the trade? If not, they will simply buy up the supply at low prices and then hoard them to artificially maintain high prices to the end users. We see how this occurs in the diamond industry where prices are kept artificially high because of the control of supply by a cartel. Thirdly, how much of the current research is based on existing demand levels for horn and how much has been allowed in the equation to cope with the inevitable explosion of demand following legalisation? Middle incomes continue to rise in the Far East and any demand models need to take in to account a quickly rising demand curve. Will there really be sufficient supply in the future to meet demand while keeping prices low enough to deter poaching? Debateable and, to me, not worth the risk of finding out.

  • Andrew
    12 May 2013, 12:07

    Is this a solution proposed to save all Rhinos and their habitats as we would want them or a desperate measure to ensure that at least a few rhino survive to be seen? Take a hypothetical post-legalisation of trade world: I am a landowner in South Africa and Rhino are living on my land. Yesterday they were wildlife that happened to be there. Today they have suddenly become my property. They have value to me and I don't want to lose them. I start by building more fencing. I can't have them wandering in to my neighbours property or they will be able to harvest the horn. In fact, I want to try and get their rhinos to wander on to my property. I want as many rhino as possible to increase my income. That means I want White Rhino. They are more sociable than Black Rhinos. More can live in an area and they are more amenable to be approached and de-horned. I don't care so much about black rhino as they won't be as profitable. My white Rhino only need grass to eat and I need to be able to track them and get to them easily. Best to cut down all the acacia scrub and create wide open grassland with little else in the way of bushes or trees. The landscape is now becoming open grazing farmland with less variety and less able to sustain a full ecosystem. Other species are suffering but at least there are lots of white rhinos. I am now developing cost effective ways to de-horn. The rhino are more sociable now and used to humans. They allow us to herd them in to bomas so that they can patiently allow us to de-horn them without sedation. I am keeping my eyes open for those with larger horn sizes as I am now going to start selective breeding for "my stock". The white rhinos are starting to become something else, no longer wild, more like specially bred cattle. Elsewhere, black rhino are being pushed out as white rhino become more commercial. The remaining black rhino are being poached because gangs market their horns as being more potent than white rhino horns and so are commanding higher prices. Some farmers appreciate this and try to cash in but the black rhino are difficult to keep and socialise so most stick to the commercial white. Poaching is not so prevalent, white rhinos are on the rise but is this really the rhino world we wanted?

  • David Maguire
    17 October 2013, 20:23

    I disagree with the very first comment "we all want to see more rhinos in more viable populations in the wild" Why?? There are plenty of Southern White Rhino in our game reserves. In fact there are probably too many in the Kruger National Park with numbers now in excess of 7000, probably closer to 10,000 and about 1700 to 1900 in the Umfolozi parks. How many can these reserves hold without grazing and other species being affected, and how many do we want to see? Its crazy. Rhino numbers have been increasing over the past 20 years to the extent that we now dont need any more. What we do need is more habitat or game reserves if we want more Rhino. Back in the late 70's early 80's there were probably just under or just over a thousand White rhino in the KNP and only a few hundred black rhino. It has now increased to close on 10,000 and that is too many considering it was said then that the K Park could sustain only 7000 elephant. There are many more now and the park actually has too much game. If Rhino sanctuaries were established in areas adjoining the KNP and in other areas where poaching is rife, these would act as decoys and attract poachers if the sanctuaries were small enough and highly populated with white rhino. It may well keep poachers out of the park and would be easier to catch them since these sanctuaries would act as bait to the poachers and traps could be set to intercept them there. It should also be remembered that the white rhino, because of the high numbers, assist in protecting the more endangered black rhino since they are easier to find and hunt and may have larger horns. Likewise, these sanctuaries would do the same to protect the rhino in the parks adjoining these sanctuaries. So we should be thinking of getting some of the "TOO MANY"rhino in the park into such sanctuaries that would in effect buffer poaching in the park. This is already happening in private game reserves and game farms where rhino are poached and is assisting the protection of the rhino in the parks.

  • John
    25 October 2013, 23:17

    David, with respect, with 7 BILLION humans and counting, maybe there's just too many people squeezing out every other species.

  • peta taylor
    21 February 2014, 14:34

    I simply don't understand the argument for legalising a trade (i.e.developing rhino farming) in what is essentially a placebo substance. If it goes ahead, isn't it akin to admitting that rhino horns have medicinal properties: they don't and it's been scientifically proven that they don't. So it's a no-win: dealers/farmers/traders would be lying and open to litigation while the poor old rhinos pay up, albeit under controlled situations. Most money generated really should be spent educating and appealing to people (Vietnamese...whoever's involved) to reject and refuse because it's all a lie and they're wasting their MONEY. Money is after all at the root of this and I suspect will trump any sense of animal welfare in the cultures who pursue rhino horn for some crazed status symbol or mythical power it is believed to have. Emphasise the lies and waste of money over the cruelty with these people...talk in their terms.

  • Clare Davies
    26 February 2014, 03:49

    I am glad someone wrote an article on the pros and cons of trading legally in rhino horn. I dont believe this is because I have a bias, but I found the arguements for trading in rhino horn legally (permitting trade in horn) a lot stronger than the arguments for not trading. I really found the arguments for not legalising trade in rhino horn pretty weak. I know this article was written to give both sides so its not a criticism, but an observation that the arguments for and against and weak on the one hand and a lot stronger on the other. I believe trade in horn has some definite benefits and a trial should be permitted. Thank you - Clare Davies

  • Tris
    12 March 2014, 05:01

    This is not right the rhino horn trade needs to be stopped but people rush into it and will make a silly decision that will end up with all of the rhinos extinct. I think there needs to be some thinking for the pros and cons. This is a serious matter and it means a lot to me I just hope they get it right.

  • Jed
    29 April 2014, 17:00

    We may have been able to at one point but now the numbers are to little, considering the demand would go up before it went down and we would wipe out a lot of species before the demand went down. So now we can not legalize the horn trade. It would not benefit any animal.

  • Anonymous commenter
    16 May 2014, 16:38

    I think legalising it is a crazy idea it will just make the problem worse!

  • SisiGandru
    16 July 2014, 12:33

    this is really sad,no matter how hard we try the poachers wont stop doing this so just forget. consider all of them killed

  • Anonymous commenter
    06 August 2014, 17:26

    I'm surprised not to hear a rumor that rhino horns have been doctored with dormant ebola virus or something equally nasty. It would serve the ultimate consumers right to get sick from their "medicine".

  • Anonymous commenter
    13 September 2014, 12:35

    The problem is that conservation is emotion and cause driven. If like most successful en devours it was results driven we might have a chance. 20 years ago east and central Africa where facing the same problems as South Africa is now. A lot of money and effort by very committed people was wasted trying to save the Rhino. In the end all the money and effort failed. If you are an CEO of a company your are judged on results. Why should it be different for conservation. We are trying the same old formula that has already failed because it feels good and is not controversial. In the end when it fails they have the excuse that they were fighting for a good cause.

    Instead of beating on the same old drum that has failed in the past is clearly faltering now, have the guts to try something different. The current system is not working stand aside and let people try other ideas and then judge it on results.

    I wonder if the anti utilization lobby are terrified of trying sustainable utilization because if it works they have to admit that it may have saved the rhino in central and east Africa.

    I am amazed at the extreme caution of people who are anti utilization. It is complex and risky etc etc. The Rhino are vanishing fast while we argue. Either come up with an effective solution that makes you feel good or let others try something different. Soon the argument may be irrelevant.

  • Anonymous commenter
    23 September 2014, 09:22

    In South Africa so many Rhinos have been poached that it seems normal and our government is in so many deals with China that He doesn't care and has not payed a cent to help save these precious animals but tons of millions of rands on his house. Soon South Africa will have no Rhinos

  • Anonymous commenter
    12 October 2014, 18:49

    Whilst the governments and NGOs argue, the White Rhino are disappearing fast. It is time to give legalisation a chance. It is backed by sound minded South African reserve owners who are being frightened out of their lives by poachers who seem to always be one step ahead. Stock piles of rhino horn are a ticking time bomb and take much needed finances to protect. Legalisation makes sense.

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