Psst! Want to make a mint out of rhino horn?

Image shows two Vietnamese officers showing seized rhino horn.

Writing in The Times, Simon Barnes reports on how UK auction houses are exploiting a legal loophole to make vast profits from sales of taxidermy troophy mounts.

Simon Barnes, The Times, Saturday 20 November 2010

Can I interest you in an opportunity to take part in the lucrative trade in rhino horn? All you have to do is pay a visit to Tennants auction house in Yorkshire. There you will have an opportunity to purchase 16 lots of rhino horn. The biggest individual lot carries an estimate of £90,000; the estimate for the total is just shy of half a million.

But first let me take you to the Luangwa Valley in Zambia. I was there just the other week, co-leading a trip with Wildlife Worldwide. And we walked. We walked through the bush for miles, and it was beautiful and beguiling with a shake or two of the Tabasco of danger. And quite unspoilt.

The usual reason for drastic declines and global or local extinctions is habitat destruction. If you drain a wetland for agriculture, the ducks die. If you concrete over a heath for housing, you lose Dartford warblers.

But every yard we walked in the valley was perfect for black rhino. This wooded savannah is black rhino heartland. There used to be 2,000 of them; a pretty dense population because the place was perfect. It was the third largest population of black rhinos in the world. It was reduced to zero by the trade in rhino horn.

The rhinos were poached to oblivion in the 1970s and 1980s and were declared extinct in 1998. They were poached to feed the insatiable demands of the Chinese medicine trade (no, not an aphrodisiac; they use rhino horn to treat fevers). There is very serious money in rhino horn, and rhinos have been poached all over the world. There have been many local extinctions and there is serious concern about the long-term global future of all five species.

First, outbid your rivals
You can enter this trade today by visiting Tennants. The rhino horns are on sale because they pass through a loophole. They are not raw horns, the sale of which would be illegal. They are “worked”. That is to say, they have – allegedly – a value greater than that of their raw materials.

That is actually true with Chinese libation cups. These items are collected for themselves and not to be, as it were, melted down. But trophy mounts – the lots coming up today – are a different matter.

They are often little more than a couple of horns joined by a piece of skin and mounted on a board. These still count as “worked” – but they have little or no merit as artistic or craftsmanly pieces. They are just highly visible chunks of dead animal.

They still fetch these very high prices. So do poorly carved (that is to say, dodgy) libation cups. An officer from the Met’s wildlife crime unit said that at least one such cup was removed from auction by a London house for its suspect provenance.

These trophy mounts are being sold for serious money, and increasingly. So here’s what you do when you’ve outbid your competitors at today’s auction. First you export your trophies: anywhere within the EU is allowed. So you pick a country with a reasonably relaxed view on this. Your buyers will sell it in the end to the Chinese. You have a product worth more than its weight in gold.

Every aspect of the trade works to the extinction of the five species of rhino. The more vibrant, profitable and workable this trade is, the sooner the rhino will be wiped out. British auction houses such as Tennants are a part of this process.

Behold the flying rhino
I was in South Luangwa National Park on my recent visit. North Luangwa National Park is tougher: hard travelling and there are no roads when you get there. It’s thrillingly remote. That didn’t stop the rhinos from being poached out. But they are back. In May this year, five black rhinos flew into the valley by Hercules aeroplane. They joined 22 already established.

This is an international effort to reintroduce rhinos to the park and recreate a viable population. Zambia Wildlife Authority and Frankfurt Zoological Society are behind it, supported by such excellent organisations as Save the Rhino from this country.

They are guarded night and day by a brilliant group of scouts. This is an absurd situation, but the situation has long been absurd. If we think it is right for rhinos to return to their ancestral lands, the only option is to guard them. So far the project is running well. I heard, while I was in the valley, that another calf had been born, making four in all, and that another female was pregnant.

The question is whether or not these heroic efforts will do anything more than supply the medicine market, as demands from overseas Chinese and the increasingly prosperous Chinese mainland nourishes a highly confident illegal trade.

The project is long and hard and fraught with difficulties. Things are a good deal easier for people who work on the other side – particularly when British auction houses provide an easy way of acquiring the stuff.

Reproduced by kind permission of Simon Barnes.

Comment from Save the Rhino

The trouble with UK auction houses’ sales of rhino horn

The demand for rhino horn
A few months ago, I carried out some research to find out the value of rhino horn products sold through the London, New York, Paris and Hong Kong salerooms of Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonham’s. Nothing complicated, I just patiently trawled their auction results on their websites to compile the data. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I do know that I was startled to find that 76 items were sold (almost all antique Chinese carved libation cups), totaling £3.9 million (approx. £51,000 each). By and large, these sales are not considered a problem, in that the works are deemed to be of sufficient artist merit that they are unlikely to end up ground into powder for use in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

In days gone by and indeed today, sports hunters of the Big Five would shoot their trophy animals, have the head, body or horns treated by a taxidermist, and then proudly hang the finished product on the wall of their no-doubt stately home; visible evidence of their hunting prowess. Rhino horns can also be sold at auction in the UK, provided they meet some strict criteria laid down by DEFRA: they have to be proven to date from before 1 June 1947, and they have to be “worked”, i.e., the horns have to be mounted on a plaque or trophy mount.

Alarmingly, there seems to have been a dramatic rise in the number of trophy mounts, and of supposed 19th century libation cups, sold at provincial UK auction houses during the last couple of years, matched by increased prices. On Saturday 20 November, Tennants auction house in Leyburn, North Yorkshire, had 14 lots involving rhino horns. Pre-sale estimates listed these as worth up to £90,000.

The fear is that these rhino horn trophy mounts, together with crude copies of Chinese libation cups, which provincial auction houses were unable to distinguish from the real thing, are being sourced from all over Europe, brought to the UK, from where the best prices can be achieved, and then sold to clients from East Asia, including China and Vietnam, the top two user countries of rhino horn.

Meanwhile, in South Africa, 268 rhinos have been poached already this year; over double the figure for last year. If poaching continues at the current rate, rhino numbers will start declining in 2013.

A partial solution
So in October 2010, DEFRA and the Animal Health Unit introduced new legislation, to tighten the rules under which antique rhino horns can be exported from the UK. They now have to meet new criteria:

The item is part of a genuine exchange of cultural goods between reputable institutions (i.e. museums)
The item has not been sold and is an heirloom moving as part of a family relocation
The item is part of a bona fide research project
The individual item is of such artistic value that it exceeds its potential value as a raw material on the illegal medicine market

And auction houses wishing to sell rhino horn items must now jump through the following hoops:

It is illegal to sell or advertise for sale any rhino horn work of art unless specific written clearance has been given by the UK CITES Management Authority.
Before accepting a rhino horn product for sale, and certainly before placing such an item in a shop, saleroom or catalogue, dealers and auctioneers should download and complete one of two checklists (one for carved rhino horn items such as libation cups and one for uncarved, mounted horns) on the Animal Health website and receive the official response granting the authority to sell

The legal loophole
However, there is a problem. Buyers can still apply for an export licence to somewhere in the EU. Although Germany and Italy are putting in place measures similar to Britain’s, other countries do not – yet – apply the controls. So buyers could then apply for an export licence to East Asia.

So here we are: We are spending tens of thousands of pounds trying to prevent poaching from countries like South Africa and Zimbabwe and thus fuelling the demand for rhino horn; and meanwhile, on our very own doorstep, buyers from East Asia are able to get hold of rhino horn via a legal loophole. Filtering a few rhino horns into the Traditional Chinese Medicine route this way will do nothing to reduce the demand; indeed, it will only increase it, and that will lead to more poaching.

A sting in the tail?
Apparently, taxidermy used to use arsenic in the preparation of taxidermy trophy mounts. That would be an interesting irony indeed.

What can we do?
Well, a couple of antiques dealers, Karen Rennie and Jonathan Cook, have been writing to the weekly newspaper, The Antiques Trade Gazette, on a regular basis to highlight the disproportionate amount that rhino horn trophy mounts are now fetching. The Antiques Trade Gazette has printed the occasional letter, but this seems to have had no effect on the provincial auction houses who continue to advertise rhino horns for sale.

You can help by writing to the following, to say that selling rhino horn trophy mounts fuels the demand for rhino horn, and does nothing to stop the poaching crisis. Tell them that you will not buy or sell anything at their auction houses. If you have contacts in Europe, please ask them to lobby their MPs to implement the recommendations of the EU Enforcement Working Group, which met on 4 November, and which agreed that this is a problem that needs tackling at European level.

The Editor, The Antiques Trade Gazette 115, Shaftesbury Avenue London WC2H 8AF

Auction houses (all of these have sold rhino horn products in 2010):

Lawrences Auctioneers
The Linen Yard South Street Crewkerne Somerset TA18 8AB

The Auction Centre Leyburn North Yorkshire DL8 5SG

Gary Don auctioneers
Curtis Buildings Berking Avenue Leeds LS9 9LF

Sworders Fine Art Auctioneers
Cambridge Road Stansted Mountfitchet Essex CM24 8GE

John Nicholsons
The Auction Rooms Longfield Midhurst Road Fernhurst Haslemere Surrey GU27 3HA

Toovey’s auction room
Spring Gardens Washington West Sussex RH20 3BS

Thank you for your help.

Cathy Dean Director Save the Rhino International

3 thoughts on “Psst! Want to make a mint out of rhino horn?

  1. An antiques dealer friend has just advised that that there is a report on the front page of this week’s Antiques Trade Gazette, in which John Nicholson is complaining that a Chinese bidder, based in Italy, defaulted on an unpaid bill of £200,000. These ‘rogue’ bidders could be involved in ‘money laundering and bribes’ claims Mr Nicholson.

  2. To the anonymous commentator:
    Thanks very much for your email. I’ve forwarded the content (not your details) to the National Wildlife Crime Unit, who liaise closely with the CITES permit team, together with a few links to sales at the auction house in question. They’ve been very good about following up other cases, so hopefully if there’s anything to be concerned about here, they will do so.

  3. I saw a live auction at John Nicholsons in Haslemere, Surrey in early September 2013 and several pieces of Rhino Horn exceeded £50,000 .These I believe were mounted small horns of 4 inches or so. It is possible, and I only say possible, that they should not have sold these as the Laws were clarified by the EU in Feb 2013 and made such sales unlawful even for old pieces They may have had a licence ??

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