Debate: “Should the global trade of rhino horn be legalised?”

“Should the global trade of rhino horn be legalised?”



  • Craig Packer (CP): Distinguished McKnight University Professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behaviour at the University of Minnesota


  • Will  Travers (WT), OBE: President and CEO of Born Free Foundation, President of Born Free USA

  • John Hume (JH): South Africa’s largest private rhino breeder with almost 1,400 rhinos under his protection

Notes by Cathy Dean, Director, Save the Rhino International.

Additional comments / explanation of points are provided in parenthesis in italics, e.g. [ XXX ]

NB: These notes do not attempt to record speakers’ actual words, merely the gist of the discussion.

CP: Introduction to the debate

  • Rhino horn – the horns of a dilemma – has been used for millennia in Asia, though the uses have changed over time: today rhino horn is primarily used as an analgesic, more recently in Vietnam for cancer. There has been an explosion in demand and of the prices offered, with horn now on the same price scale as heroin

  • The irony is that horn regrows, but poachers in their haste to get rhino horn simply kill the animal

  • [ map with black and white rhino population numbers and distribution ]

  • Southern white rhinos numbered only c. 300 in 1952, now there are c. 20,000. The Botswana rhino reintroduction programme is the only reason they exist in that country today, but translocations are very expensive at c. $50,000 / animal

  • So why not shave off the horns and sell them to pay for protection, translocations etc? A paper published a couple of years ago in Conservation Biology estimated that it would cost $147m / annum to protect existing populations, without any unforeseen consequences

  • The vicuña and bear bile examples: once you put market force into play, unexpected things happen

  • In conclusion, hope we can find some common ground through this debate rather than polarising opinion. The audience is in a minority in that it cares about the issue and have come out this evening to learn more

Each speaker was then invited to give a brief introduction to their positions.

WT: Opening statement

  • Yes, on first glance, harvesting seems to offer a win-win situation, and that’s why some fine minds have been applied to considering how to legalise trade. South Africa appointed a Committee of Inquiry (COI) of economists, law enforcement specialists, conservationists etc.) to investigate all aspects – including shipping, distribution and sale, best business models, a government-to-government owned and operated cartel (Central Selling Organisation, or CSO) to regulate demand and supply, the impact of trade on existing demand, the possibility of new uses, new buyers or new consumer countries emerging, etc. The COI conducted lengthy, in-depth research and, in response to its report, the South African government decided not to submit a rhino horn trade proposal for consideration at CITES CoP17

  • One could have been forgiven for thinking that that was that, but, at the 11th hour, Swaziland – a country with 73 rhino (about 5% of the number owned by JH, less than 0.5% of the number of rhinos in South Africa) – submitted its own proposal to trade in rhino horn

  • Swaziland’s rhino experts were the same people who recently shipped elephants to zoos in the USA

  • Swaziland’s proposal projects the earnings that could be realised were legal trade to be approved, yet the country has only had three rhinos killed by poachers since 2010

  • The proposal refers to a quote by Ian Player, advocating harvesting horn for sustainable use. WT disputed the quote, saying that Player was only in favour of trade in rhino horn harvested from natural mortalities.

 “In later life, Ian Player came out of retirement to campaign for a relaxation of the ban on the trade in rhino horn, a traditional medicine in the Far East, following a huge surge in the problem of poaching. Player believed that government-controlled trading in horns from animals that died naturally could force prices down, undermine the illegal trade and provide a source of revenue for conservation ]


  • In conclusion: Swaziland’s proposal to reopen trade can only succeed if it receives a 2/3rd majority vote at CoP17 and that won’t happen. The South African government decided not to try. Swaziland is going ahead but it has misquoted Ian Player. JH’s desire to trade is not informed by knowledge of the markets, and the very fact that we are debating trade will bring hope to poachers. Legalising rhino horn trade will not make things better but worse


Hume: Opening statement

  • Disagree with the misquoting of Ian Player; has the quote on tape

  • Now the custodian of 1,403 rhino. Have bred 948 rhino, doing best to save rhino for future generations. Here because rhinos need the audience’s vocal support, and believe that have the recipe to save them from extinction. If the internal ban is working so well, why are they being poached at the rate of 3 per day, with no sign of improvement?

  • Personal background: was a former property developer, with a reserve near Kruger. Then rhinos were poached on the reserve for their horns, so embarked on dehorning operations to deter poachers. Dehorning is completely safe for rhino, and there is no evidence that horn trimming has any physical impact or negative behavioural consequences. All funds to run the reserve come from own pension and savings; those are now virtually exhausted

  • Reference to Ian Player’s rhino conservation efforts in the 1950s and 60s that encouraged private ownership. Most rhino range states, however, did not encourage private ownership and their rhino populations have largely vanished

  • JH pointed to the February 2009 moratorium in domestic trade on an overhead projected slide as the point when poaching began

  • [ What about Zimbabwe poaching before then? 2006: 21 rhinos killed; 2007: 38; 2008: 164; 2009: 39 ]

  • Says that protectionist policies, demand reduction strategies, safe havens, translocations, etc. have all failed under the watchful eye of CITES. Quotes: “Trade bans don’t stop the trade, they only push it underground to the illegal channels”; “When will we start saving the rhino instead of their horns?”; “You can’t expect the poor rural communities to sit on their asset for future generations. They need the cash now”

  • JH’s greatest hope is that legal trade would enable people to benefit from rhinos and not poach them. If the international ban on rhino horn trade is so good, why are they still being poached? Ends with a quote by Einstein: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results”

CP asked a series of questions leading into further discussion, together with questions / interventions from the audience

  • What does WT think about the correlation between the introduction of the domestic moratorium and the huge rise in poaching?

  • WT: The international ban between 1997 and 2007 was very effective. So what changed? In 2005, South Africa and Swaziland got their white rhino downlisted for live trade and hunting (sending out a powerful message that rhino horn was available again); rumours spread of rhino horn as a cancer cure in Vietnam; a rapid growth in middle class disposable income in China

  • JH: In 1977, there were probably still 20,000 black rhino in Africa and there were other reasons why poaching didn’t get to South Africa. Lots of horn was available until 2008; went to Mozambique and paid poachers

  • [ Why was horn “available” until 2008, when the CITES had banned international trade? ]

  • CP: Also in 2007, CITES approved a one-off sale of ivory from stockpiles. There were two opposing groups of economists, who interpreted this as alleviating or conversely precipitating poaching. After this legal sale, there was a sudden spike in poaching, which has continued to escalate

  • JH claims that the sale was not done correctly and did not work as it should have. Currently the South African government has 22 tonnes of rhino horn, he has 5 tonnes and other private owners have 5 tonnes so a potential 30+ tonnes could be sold sustainably

  • WT: Says that it is a huge assumption that legal will replace illegal and that poachers are entrepreneurs and will undercut prices

  • [ Dissent from audience on poaching statistics for 2016 year-to-date ]

  • CP: How do you see the $147m needed to protect the rhinos; where will it come from and how will it be sustained?

  • WT: Understands that the South African government will start a $40m/year rhino fund from October 2016 and will supplement/augment this; also ways to tap into other government funding as Kenya has done with US funding

  • JH: Kenya needs $150m to arrest its 5% drop in wildlife numbers per year; Kenya has no private ownership or sustainable use policies

  • Debate on the South American vicuña wool business. Numbers have increased from 5,000 to 300,000 under the legal trade system according to JH but there is still serious poaching going on. WT disputes the figures and comments made by the chair of the breeders association. Says it may be necessary to put vicuña back onto CITES Appendix I and that it is not good model

  • CP just back from a month in South Africa visiting private reserves; well-financed reserves have had to quadruple budgets to withstand the rhino poaching onslaught. A De Beers-financed reserve lost 12 rhino over one weekend in April and so decided to disinvest in rhinos, i.e. sell them off

  • WT contrasts this with the Kenyan socio-economic system: the rhino and elephant populations are growing and poaching is at 1% compared with 5% in South Africa. People do earn good income from looking after rhino in Kenya

  • CP: Points out that JH came into ranching with considerable financial and other resources, but others may be attracted who do not have the same standards of husbandry

  • JH: “Why do you want to burden rhinos with conditions that don’t apply to other species? Why are you punishing rhino owners?” He agrees that rhino should be kept in accordance with minimum standards (e.g. Threatened Or Protected Species (TOPS) legislation and the Rhino DNA Indexing System (RhODIS)) but objects to the current red tape he faces

  • WT: Retorts that South Africa has not been burdening the “canned hunting” industry with similar regulations. The motto of the Born Free Foundation is to “keep wild animals wild” and refers to the Simon Jenkins article in The Guardian on farming elephants and finishes by saying that this is not an inexorable drift to harnessing and taming nature; we must defend wild places

  • JH: “My rhinos are not very imprinted and are in an ideal condition to be reintroduced into the wild when you have contained poaching”

  • CP: We are three white men – dead before long! How can we be sure that local populations will commit to protecting rhino?

  • JH: They are good stockmen and famers and we can trust them

  • WT: The future of Africa’s wildlife lies with Africans – they will be the standard bearers with our support

  • CP: Our debate is happening in country that has just had a surprise referendum result. Debates do not always go the way elites expect… [ a reference to the Brexit vote ]

  • WT: Sees this as a breakdown between people and their elected leaders but also to hold elected leaders to account. Wildlife is for the Kenyan people and not “the state”. The grassroots movement of the people is making a difference in Kenya, e.g. the ivory burn on 30 April 2016

  • JH: The Kenya Wildlife Service saw a wildlife population decline of 25% between 2009 and 2013. Kenya’s battered tourism sector is suffering from this decline

  • CP: Can rhino horn be sold domestically at present? No. Would JH be willing to run a “rhino horn spa” on his property rather than trying to export? JH: Yes and have already had discussions about this

  • WT: Huge risk in legitimising rhino horn and likely to drive demand. Recounted going to a meeting chaired by Edna Molewa, at which he asked the Minister and others on the podium if they thought that rhino horn was a valid medicinal product – no-one raised a hand.

  • CP asks WT (to see if there is any common ground between the two men): If the populations continue to decline would you agree to try something totally different like the “rhino spa” idea?

  • WT: Scornful and says he would find it very hard to agree but if we get to that point, “we should have this discussion again”

  • JH: Only about 2% of horn is used for TCM purposes; the other 98% as prestigious gifts

  • CP feels that JH speaks from the heart and has paid personally. WT agrees that JH is doing lots of things right with a lot of passion but to allow farming is not the question under debate. The question is “Should the global trade of rhino horn be legalised?” and states that our common enemy are the criminal syndicates (and entrepreneurs)

  • How well does JH understand the Asian markets and will he be able to control the demand? Once Pandora’s Box is opened…

  • JH: The genie was let out of the bottle in February 2009 and we can’t get it back in. Never mind the market and how big it is; let me sell horn and we would raise the money needed to protect rhino

  • Is rhino horn a finite supply? JH: Mentions harvesting and trimming rates

  • What about Indian and Sumatran rhino and their scarcity/ rarity?

  • JH: We are talking about rhino farming in private hands for commercial profit

  • WT to JH: You allowed hunting on your land until 2006 and you don’t anymore. Aren’t you in it for the money? Can’t you accept that you cannot satisfy demand?

  • JH: You don’t understand Africa; African governments will let us down

  • WT: Has been arguing for a long time to establish “World Heritage Species” (not just sites) and believes we have no other option but to do so

  • Vietnam is often just a staging point for the Chinese market; demand reduction works, e.g. shark fins in China following a government decision to stop selling them at formal banquets

  • JH: Has nothing against demand reduction – if no demand, than no one would kill rhinos

  • CP to JH: How many consumers can you supply? JH asked if this was for TCM or artefact calculates he can produce 1 tonne per annum

  • CP: So your motivation is to cover the costs of keeping your rhino. If so, would you instead accept an annual donation and give up the idea of selling? JH: Sure, if donor funding was there

  • What about private owners who can’t afford to dehorn?


Hume: Concluding remarks

  • I would like to go on breeding rhinos ad infinitum. I can sell horns, I can breed more rhino and I cannot see what is wrong with that. They are ideal for free release. I have the recipe but it takes a lot of money. I don’t need a begging bowl, I just need trade to be legal


Travers: Concluding remarks

  • We all want the same thing – loads of rhino and other species living free and wild as intended. JH’s recipe for that is not that simple; we have very different and passionately held views. The focus is about legalizing trade – yes or no, sense or nonsense and we have given it a good airing tonight. But more profoundly, our relationship with nature has gone from hunter-gather to explorer and to exploiter. Given human population growth forecasts we face three different outcomes: (1) a demise of species and eventually us; (2) the commodification of wildlife or (3) the tough option, one that doesn’t put human need or greed first. Ranching rhinos will lead us down a one-way street to zoos, game ranches as the only reminders of what we have destroyed. Please vote for a compassionate, humane and responsible future.


Voting results


Before the debate

30% For

62% Against

8% Undecided


After the debate

39% For

60% Against

1% Undecided

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