March 2013

Reigniting the debate on a legal trade in rhino horn


Photo credit Dambari Wildlife Trust

A group of environmentalists say that a legal trade in rhino horn could be used to save rhinos from the current rhino poaching crisis. In the leading journal Science they argue that current methods are failing to stop the ‘insatiable international demand’ for rhino horn. At present trade in rhino horn is banned under CITES - The Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species.

The authors argue that rhino horns could be humanely harvested to provide a legal source of rhino horn. Rhinos grow about 0.9kg of horn each year, and the risks to the animal from today's best-practice horn harvesting techniques are minimal.

The authors make comparisons with the successful farming of crocodiles, which they claim has reduced pressure on wild crocodile populations.

They recommend the creation of a Central Selling Organisation to supervise the legitimate harvest and sale of rhino horn globally. However without stringent monitoring, there are risks that a legal trade could serve as a route for the illicit tracking of rhino horns. At present, the lack of law enforcement and insufficient political will in Vietnam to control the illegal trade in rhino horn has led to record poaching levels in South Africa.

Save the Rhino International is generally in favour of sustainable use, believing that conservation efforts must, as far as possible, be income-generating in order to avoid over-reliance on international donor support.

On the supply side, we are concerned that occasional, one-off sales of elephant ivory have not reduced poaching for ivory. We would like to see more detail on how a trade in rhino horn will be regulated and how the proponents would ensure that income generated goes back into rhino conservation efforts. Other pre-conditions include getting a better grip on the abuse and corruption that are contributing to the present high levels of illegal trade, auditing horn stockpiles and increasing the database of horn DNA samples, so that – if trade is approved – legal horns can be distinguished from illegal horns. Without stringent monitoring, there are risks that a legal trade could serve as a route for the illicit tracking of rhino horns.

On the demand side, South Africa (if it is to propose a legal trade at the next CITES CoP in 2016) still needs to establish a credible trading partner. Neither Vietnam nor China nor any other country has yet come forward. Being a credible trading partner will entail a much higher level of law enforcement and political will to combat the illegal trade in rhino horn than has been evidenced so far. Who knows how rising affluence in other Asian countries will affect the demand for rhino horn? And who knows how many more Vietnamese or Chinese will want to buy rhino horn once the stigma of buying illegal products is removed.

There will always be criminals who will try to undercut the ‘official price’ of rhino horn, by continuing to illegally kill rhinos in Africa. Rigorous anti-poaching and monitoring activities will still be needed to protect wild rhino populations, as will environmental education and community conservation programmes in key rhino areas. There is no single silver bullet that is going to solve the rhino poaching crisis.

The paper has been published just days before the start of the 16th Conference of Parties to the International Trade on Endangered Species (CITES), which will be held in Bangkok from 3-14 March. No proposal to legalise the trade is tabled for this meeting, however South Africa is conducting a series of studies into the feasibility of a legal trade. It is likely to be considered by CITES at the 2016 meeting. Read more on CITES discussions by clicking here

Click here to read a more detailed article from Save the Rhino, debating a legal trade in rhino horn

Related links

28/02/13 BBC news - Time to legalise the trade say researchers

28/02/13 NBC science news - Legal horn trade could save rhinos from cliff of extinction, experts argue

(3) Comments

  • Anonymous commenter
    02 March 2013, 23:55

    Part of an interview with Iain Douglas Hamilton, hes speaking about elephats but it seems relevant.

    Laurel Neme: Some people are saying that the 1989 CITES ban on elephant ivory didn’t work...

    Iain Douglas-Hamilton: But they’re wrong. It did.

    It’s only in the last three years its succumbing to pressure. But the reason for that pressure is not because ivory is illegal. The reason for that pressure is that the price of ivory is very high. And the reason the price is very high is because the demand is high, particularly in Japan and China.

    I don’t quite see how legalizing it would help because legalizing ivory has never helped in the past. There’s absolutely no known example where a legal trade that actually to protect elephants.

    The ban worked. The ban worked beautifully. I lived through it. I saw the elephants destroyed by a legal ivory trade. When a legal ivory trade existed, I saw elephants destroyed in East Africa in two decades, the 1970’s and the 1980’s. I then saw the ivory trade ban come in [in 1989] and I saw elephants recover for nearly 20 years. Sure, there was poaching. I’m not saying poaching was ever eliminated. But the question is, could the elephants reproduce faster than they died and the answer is yes, they did. They increased in all the major populations in East Africa for nearly two decades. It’s only really been since 2008 that the ivory trade ban has stopped working properly.

    I don’t think it would be any better if that ban was reduced and trade was made legal. On the contrary, it seems to be some experiments in letting some partial sales take place that has stimulated the demand that was dormant.

    I think it was very unwise to tinker with the ivory trade ban when it was working. It was in 2008 that they allowed experimental sales, and it was ever since then that things have really deteriorated.

    I know there was a previous attempt to have some limited sales and it was questionable whether those led to increased illegal killing. But the difference was that in the previous experimental sale [in 1999 to Japan only], China was not permitted to be one of the ivory buyers. As soon as China became permitted [to become a buyer for the 2008 one-off legal ivory sales], the controls that China had [to prevent illegal ivory from entering the legal market] went to pieces. Right now, the ivory trade is largely illegal in China. It’s supposed to be legal internal trade but in actual fact most of the ivory on sale in the shops in China is illegal in this origin.


  • Marie
    08 March 2013, 20:00

    Is it even possible to farm Rhino's intensively enough to keep up with demand for horn?
    I agree that demand will go up as people will be able to buy certified horn that 'raises money for Rhino', but unless it's like pig farms (inhumane) then is it really possible to make it cheaper than getting it free from the wild?

    There must be better technology people can use, like stick on heartrate/ gps monitors. Or maybe impregnating the rhino horn with cyanide so that if poachers take it the people who eat it get ill?

  • Cathy Dean
    09 March 2013, 09:42

    Marie, thanks for your question.
    Yes, you can harvest horns from rhinos, but as trade in rhino horn (other than trophy horn exports) is illegal, it can't, in theory, be used, whether as TCM or as a status symbol gift. No one really knows what the demand is likely to be in Vietnam if and when trade is legalised, let alone in China, Thailand, Laos or other East Asian countries, but there are economists and mathematicians busy trying to build models to predict demand / supply curves. See also this link:

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