One-off sale of rhino horn stockpiles

During 2007, South Africa lost just 13 rhinos to poaching; by the end of 2015, the number had increased by the sixth year in a row with at least 1,338 killed by poachers.

The surge in rhino poaching prompted South Africa to announce in 2013 that it would support a legalised trade in rhino horn. On 3 July, South Africa’s Environment Minister, Edna Molewa, said that the country would back ‘’the establishment of a well-regulated international trade” in rhino horn and seek permission for a one-off sale of rhino horn from stockpiles worth around $1 billion.

Rhino horn credit Mark Carwardine

The idea of a one-off sale first came from the Rhino Issues Management Report, commissioned by the South African government, which put forward strategies for rhino conservation in consultation with NGOs, conservationists, rhino owners and many other people and organisations committed to protecting Africa’s rhinos. One of its recommendations was that the Department for Environmental Affairs “should request permission for two auctions in 2013 to permit sales of stockpiles to finance efforts to fight poaching and increase ranges.”

South Africa initially intended to propose the one-off sale at the 2016 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). South Africa argued that current anti-poaching measures were not doing enough to curtail the current poaching crisis. Molewa commented that “South Africa cannot continue to be held hostage by the syndicates slaughtering our rhinos.’’ She went on to explain that the country had “the ability to make this scarce resource available without impacting on the species, through the implementation of a regulated trade system.’’

In the run-up to CITES in 2016, South Africa was also expected to submit a proposal to lift the international ban on the rhino horn trade, which had been in place since 1977. However, meanwhile, the Department of Environmental Affairs had convened a Committee of Inquiry (a panel of experts) to analyse whether or not a legalised international trade was workable or not. During an 18-month period, the Committee researched the subject and ultimately advised the government not to submit a proposal to CITES; no South African rhino horn proposal was tabled.

With hours to spare, Swaziland, a country with a small rhino population and minimal poaching, surprised everyone by submitting its own proposal to CITES to lift the international trade ban. The Swaziland proposal was only intended to cover the sale of horn from natural mortalities in the country’s stockpile; it did not envisage harvesting horn from its living rhino. At CoP17, held in Johannesburg, CITES’ Parties voted to uphold the international ban on rhino horn trading which was first enacted in 1977.

So how could a one-off sale of rhino horn help the fate of this increasingly endangered species? Well, the theory is that if South Africa or Swaziland were to auction off the country’s stockpiles, this would flood the market, resulting in a drop in the price of rhino horn and decreasing the incentive to poach. The problem is that the issue is far from simple, and the complexities and uncertainties have divided opinions.

Save the Rhino International is not in favour of a one-off sale of rhino horn from national stockpiles for a number of reasons:

Firstly, a one-off sale would create huge difficulties in terms of distinguishing illegal from legal horns circulating in the market. There are fears that, without stringent monitoring, a legal trade could serve as a route for the illicit trafficking of rhino horns. If the current high levels of corruption and illegal trade cannot be managed, it doesn’t provide much hope that a legal trade could be controlled. Even if South Africa were adequately able to differentiate the legal horns, there is no way of knowing that the likely end-user countries (Vietnam, China and perhaps others) would implement such strict monitoring.


ENV teams go to TCM shops to talk to practitioners about rhino hornThere is also the fear that a one-off sale would further increase the demand for rhino horn, which would then not be sustained by further sales, thus encouraging further poaching. In the past few years, increasing wealth in Asian countries, mainly Viet Nam, has led to a soaring demand for rhino horn. Rhino horn is no longer used just in Traditional Chinese Medicine, with a wide range of different user groups now using rhino horn. These include wealthy businessmen using rhino horn as a status symbol and others who believe in its ‘magical’ cancer-curing properties or usefulness as hangover cure. We do not know whether the legal sale of rhino horn will create new user groups, if the social stigma of buying an illegal product is removed. With a rapidly increasing Asian population, opening up rhino horn to these growing markets could have unexpected consequences: could stockpiled and future harvests of horn satisfy future demand?

In order for a country to establish a one-off sale, it needs to establish a credible trade partner, a country that will provide evidence that it would be well-positioned to manage a tightly controlled trade in rhino horn. So far no countries have come forward. Even if one country, such as China, were to partner with e.g. South Africa on such a proposal, users in other countries would still have to satisfy their demand illegally.

There is a risk with a one-off sale that large buyers would choose not flood the market with rhino horn (thus driving down price), but would instead stockpile or bank on the species’ extinction, in order to drive up the price of rhino horn. Frustrated users would therefore continue to rely on poached horn.

Jambiya beltThere are also concerns that a legal trade could have the potential to damage the demand reduction programmes already underway. A legal trade would send mixed messages to the consumer groups, who are currently being dissuaded from using rhino horn. Although advocates of a legal trade in rhino horn complain that demand reduction isn’t working, recent history has shown us that demand reduction in Asia is possible and has been successfully achieved. From the late 1970s to the mid-1990s, most rhino populations were ravaged by phases of intensive poaching to support the traditional rhino horn trade for medicine in Asian and Jambiya handles in Yemen. However international outcry at the poaching crisis led to the main user countries – Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Yemen – implementing trade bans, government action, and successful awareness campaigns. By the mid-1990s these demand reduction strategies began to have an impact. For 16 years, between 1990 and 2005, rhino poaching losses in South Africa averaged just 14 animals each year.

Some reports commented on the likely deterioration of rhino horn in strong-rooms that are not fully climate- or pest-controlled; buyers may not be willing to pay high prices for infested, poor quality horn.

It is difficult to predict the impact that a one-off sale would have on other rhino range states, and we can entirely understand the concerns of other countries with large rhino populations that are not currently contemplating sales of rhino horns, such as Kenya and India. These countries would not necessarily benefit financially from the one-off sale of South Africa’s rhino horns. So even if South Africa had the capacity to increase its rhino security through funds received, this could have a damaging impact on other rhino populations.

It has also been argued that no matter what price the South African government sets for rhino horn, there would be poachers willing to undercut the official price

Other critics of  a proposed one-off sale refer to the disastrous impact of one-off sales of elephant ivory and its impact on the current elephant poaching crisis. In 2008, CITES gave the go ahead for the legal sale of ivory stockpiles by four southern African countries to China and Japan. Within a year, elephant poaching and the illegal ivory trade boomed to its highest levels in history.

Finally, there would be a concern that the South African government would lose much international support for its rhino protection efforts if it were to go ahead with plans for a one-off sale. There has been public criticism that the government can’t deal with the criminal syndicates so will effectively profit from them instead. Would international donors turn away from South African’s rhino conservation efforts if South Africa sells its rhino horn stockpile?

In conclusion, Save the Rhino does not support a one-off sale of rhino horn from stockpiles, as we believe the concerns described above cannot be adequately addressed or managed.

Photo credit: Renaud Fulconis, ENV, Mark Cowardine.