Can a one-off sale of rhino horn help conservation?

During 2007, South Africa lost just 13 rhinos to poaching; by the end of 2013 it is predicted that over 1,000 rhinos will be killed in one year alone.

 It is this surge in rhino poaching that has prompted South Africa to announce that it will be backing a proposal for a legalised trade in rhino horn. On 3 July 2013, South Africa’s Environment Minister, Edna Molewa, announced 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 stockpiles worth around $1 billion.

South Africa will propose the one-off sale at the next Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which will be held in 2016. South Africa will seek international approval from the CITES member states, who will vote on the country’s plan.

White rhino, South AfricaSouth Africa argues that current anti-poaching measures are not doing enough to curtail the current poaching crisis. Molewa comments that ‘’South Africa cannot continue to be held hostage by the syndicates slaughtering our rhinos.’’ She goes on to explain that the country has ‘’the ability to make this scarce resource available without impacting on the species, through the implementation of a regulated trade system.’’

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 auctions off the country’s stockpiles, this will flood the market, meaning the price of rhino horn will drop and the incentive to poach will decrease. The problem is that the issue is far from simple, and the complexities and uncertainties have critics in upheaval over the suggestion.

Save the Rhino International is not in favour of the proposed one-off sale of rhino horn from South African 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 was 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.

There 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. Over the past few years, increasing wealth in Asian countries, mainly Vietnam, 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 business men 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 South Africa 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 South Africa on this 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.

There 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.

Some reports have 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.

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.

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 will not necessarily benefit financially from the one-off sale of South Africa’s rhino horns. So even if South Africa has the capacity to increase its rhino security through funds received, this could have a damaging impact on other rhino populations. No matter what price the South African government sets for rhino horn, there will always be poachers willing to undercut the official price by poaching rhinos elsewhere.

Other critics of the proposed 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 is a concern that the South African government will lose much international support for its rhino protection efforts if it goes ahead with plans for the 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. Will international donors turn away from South African’s rhino conservation efforts if South Africa sells its rhino horn stockpile?

Advocates of a legalised trade claim that current strategies to combat rhino poaching are not doing enough, and that the one-off sale rhino could be enough to satisfy the current demand for rhino horn, reduce the price fetched and in turn reduce poaching. The South African government has around 16,437 kilograms of stockpiled rhino horn, while 2,091 kilograms more is in private hands; the funds raised from selling this rhino horn could be used to ensure that more rhinos are better protected, while a longer-term trade solution is proposed. 

Rhino conservation is becoming increasingly expensive for both government and private landowners. A one-off sale of rhino horn will help with the costs of rhino conservation, such as security, anti-poaching and monitoring patrols. Private landowners are incredibly important in the successful growth of South Africa’s white rhino population. At present, many landowners cannot afford to keep rhinos on their land; their assets are literally being wiped out overnight as the poaching onslaught continues.

Current predictions suggest that wild rhinos could go extinct by 2026, and proponents of the sale say that we do not have time to tackle the programme through demand reduction schemes. They say that a legalised trade could be the solution to the poaching crisis.

In a recent interview, conservation biologist Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes explains the merits of a legal trade in rhino horn. He claims ‘’the way things are set up now, poachers and illegal traders have much stronger incentives and more money at their disposal to kill rhinos than individual rhino owners and custodians have to protect them.’’

He goes on to explain that we need to take a better look at the economic market forces driving the rhino poaching crisis. An established trade would allow the government and private landowners to gain monetary benefit from having rhinos on their land as well as providing income to improve security.

It is vital that communities and stakeholders benefit from wildlife. There is a whole spectrum of options from fatal to non-fatal, consumptive to non-consumptive; all are worth exploring in detail but not necessarily pursuing. It’s important to keep the overall goal in mind – more rhinos in more, larger populations in Range States – and to ask “What are the conditions that are required to enable this?”. A lot more research and information is required before we – or anyone else – can properly decide whether some form of trade would work.

Links for further reading

Links for further reading

South Africa Department of Environmental Affairs press release

Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes on why legalising the trade could help save rhinos, in Earth Touch

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