A legal trade in rhino horn

Black rhino looking away from the camera in Kenya.

The international trade in rhino horn, regulated by the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), has been banned since 1977. While international trade is illegal under this convention, individual countries are nonetheless able to determine their own laws to allow or prohibit the sale of rhino horn domestically i.e., within their country. Since 1977, some countries have indeed banned domestic rhino horn trade. However, even the decision to impose a local ban has not been straightforward or uncontroversial, particularly in rhino-range states that have sustainable use policies.

At the most recent CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP) in 2016, Swaziland (now eSwatini) tabled a proposal to bring back the international trade in rhino horn, but this was rejected. The next CITES CoP is now on the horizon (August 2019, Switzerland – after the Sri Lanka meeting in May had to be postponed) and it is likely to be a key meeting for rhinos, with a proposal from eSwatini to allow a trade in rhino horn of its white rhinos, a proposal from Namibia to allow a live animal trade in white rhinos and for trophy hunting, alongside numerous other items for discussion that will impact rhino conservation.

This Thorny Issue considers the issues around legalising the trade in rhino horn and what it could mean for rhinos. Specifically, we look at South Africa’s recent exploration of the topic via a series of detailed reports that the country commissioned.

Why do some people want an international trade in rhino horn?
Those advocating for legalising the trade argue, among other things, that:

  • The cost of protecting rhinos has spiralled upwards since the start of the poaching crisis in 2008 and some rhino owners are having to disinvest in rhinos / turn their land over to other uses
  • Donor funding is insufficient, and tends to be directed towards national or community-based rhino programmes, rather than the private sector
  • The status of rhino ownership varies between range states – some countries ‘nationalise’ their rhino populations, others allow custodianships, yet other allow rhinos to be owned outright – and there is the contention that the owner should be able to determine what they may or may not do with their rhinos
  • At present, with no legal trade, all the income from rhino horn trade is going to criminals, rather to rhino managers, who can plough the proceeds back into conservation

And why are others opposed to an international trade in rhino horn?
Those hesitant about opening up the trade in rhino horn have a range of concerns including:

  • The size of the market, particularly if the stigma or constraints of dealing in illegal products is removed, is not well understood, and therefore it is difficult to assess whether supply can meet demand
  • It’s not known how opening up a supply from one country or a few countries may impact poaching in other rhino range states in Asia as well as in Africa
  • Law enforcement agencies, already stretched, may struggle to differentiate between legally and illegally traded rhino horn
  • Governments and NGOs mounting behaviour-change campaigns to reduce the demand for illegal rhino horn in consumer countries will have to convey more nuanced messaging to potential buyers

And then there are those opposed to any form of sustainable use of animal products, e.g. animal rights organisations, which have moral or ethical concerns about harvesting rhino horn, or the breeding rhinos in captive or semi-captive situations.

However, it’s important to bear in mind that the trade issue is a spectrum, with no clear demarcations. For example, those broadly in favour of legalising the trade in rhino horn may hold different views on whether rhino horn from poaching mortalities should be sold as well as that harvested from live animals. Views on the efficacy of behaviour-change campaigns differ between organisations. A law enforcement agency in one country may feel that it can police a legal trade in rhino horn, while the equivalent agency in another country may doubt its ability to do so.

The history of trade in rhino horn
South Africa holds approximately 70% of the world’s rhinos and therefore is a key player in the future of rhino conservation and trade. After the end of the poaching crisis of the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, poaching-related mortalities in South Africa were negligible, with 13 rhinos killed in 2007, for example. However, the current crisis took hold rapidly, rising to a peak of 1,215 in 2014; the number of rhinos killed from 2014 to 2017 has been between 1,000 and 1,200 annually, equivalent to approx. three rhinos per day.

Until 2009, South Africa was one of the countries that allowed a legal domestic trade in rhino horn. This domestic trade came to an end when a moratorium on trade was introduced in response to the rising number of poaching incidents. The 2009 ban was opposed by certain private rhino owners, including John Hume and Johan Kruger. Following a series of court cases filed by Hume and Kruger, the ban was lifted by the High Court in November 2015, having found that due process was not followed regarding public consultation before imposing the moratorium. South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) appealed the decision at each level of the court process, but a final ruling to lift the ban on domestic trade in rhino horn was made by the Constitutional Court in April 2017 (more on this here).

While contesting the lifting of the moratorium in 2015-2017, the DEA had – for reasons that are still unclear – not attempted to re-advertise its intention to ban the domestic trade in rhino horn, with the required notice period and circulation of the information. Instead, the DEA focused on developing new legislation setting out the requirements for domestic sales of rhino horn (i.e. permits, DNA samples and microchips).

For that reason many people expected South Africa to table a proposal to allow international trade in rhino horn for the CITES CoP held in September 2016 in Johannesburg. However, at the eleventh hour, South Africa announced that it was not going to do so (see discussion below). Caught by surprise, eSwatini (then known as Swaziland) put together a hasty proposal. This did not gain the two-thirds majority needed, and the international ban remains in place today.

South Africa’s Committee of Inquiry into the rhino horn trade issue
Although it did not submit a proposal to the CITES CoP in 2016, South Africa had been researching options for rhino conservation and trade. In 2015, the South African Cabinet commissioned 20 individuals from different sectors of the conservation world, including South African National Parks, state agencies, NGOs, private rhino owners, and resource economists – to form a Committee of Inquiry (CoI), tasked with producing a report on the viability of rhino horn trade to inform the South African government. The CoI was a more consultative process than previous explorations of the issues involved, and effectively replaced previous reports: The viability of legalising trade in rhino horn in South Africa (published 2014) and the Rhino issue management report (published 2013).

The full report was completed in 2016 but only the CoI’s Summary Report has been made available.

Through stakeholder consultation, existing studies, new research, and decision-tree and SWOT analysis, the CoI identified five key areas that require interventions to address wildlife crime, enhance the Government’s ability to conserve rhinos in their natural habitat, and increase the opportunities to realise benefits associated with successful conservation. The five key areas are:

  • Security (law enforcement)
  • Community empowerment
  • Biological management
  • Responsive legislative provisions and effective implementation
  • Demand management

Each of these areas has its own minimum requirements, and the CoI developed indicators in order to measure progress and set targets that should be achieved. The roles and responsibilities of various government departments were identified.

Having considered those five areas, the Summary Report discusses two remaining central issues that need to be addressed:

  1. The potential role of demand reduction and / or legal trade to address demand pressures
  2. How to finance rhino protection in South Africa

In terms of demand, two options were considered, which the CoI argued were not necessarily mutually exclusive:

1a. Changing consumer behaviour through campaigns and the introduction and enforcement of legislation to reduce or eliminate demand for rhino horn in consumer countries
1b. Facilitating a legal and well-regulated trade to supply some of the demand from legal sources and thereby generate funds for rhino conservation

In terms of financing rhino conservation efforts, four choices were presented:

2a. An international fundraising campaign to raise funds for protection
2b. A voluntary tourism levy
2c. Environmental off-set funding
2d. A legal trade in rhino horn

The CoI Summary Report discusses each of these options in turn. On the last one – funding via a legal trade in rhino horn – the CoI considered three models for managing a legal, international trade in rhino horn:

2d1. Sales channelled through a Central Selling Organisation (CSO) established by the South African Government
2d2. Sales channelled through a government agency that allocates quotas to public and private agencies and sells only to equivalent government-controlled agencies in other countries
2d3. Centralised collection, storage and certification with allocation of quotas for participating suppliers, working through a public-private partnership

It was noted that any trade is not without risk and more information is needed to take a final decision.

The CoI Summary Report concluded:

“The primary recommendation from the Committee was that Government should do everything possible to address the five key areas that must be addressed to create an environment conducive for rhino conservation in South Africa, to effectively address rhino poaching and the illegal trade in rhino horn, and to reach a point where any potential trade in rhino horn would contribute to conservation outcomes.”

Clearly, a great deal of thought and consultation went into the production of the CoI Summary Report. Furthermore, the five key areas identified by the CoI are addressed in the Ministerial updates on the implementation of the integrated strategic management of rhinoceros.

Will there be a rhino horn trade proposal at the next CITES CoP?
In five months’ time, countries will gather once again at a CITES CoP. With the rhino horn trade proposal from eSwatini now on the agenda, only time will tell how far this document will go and how all proposals linked to rhinos will turn out.

eSwatini’s 2016 rhino horn trade proposal left many of the CoI’s questions unanswered; unsurprising when it was put together in a matter of days. Remember too that the CoI was a purely South African government initiative, and therefore did not directly involve any eSwatini government representatives. However, the CoI’s questions and analysis are intended to speak to the whole international situation, are coherent and carefully constructed, and need answers.

Reports in the media of a conference held in eSwatini in November 2018 by Legal Trade For Rhino Survival (LTRS), which looked at whether a legal, captive-bred, rhino-horn-producing industry could be sustainable, and whether it could save the species from extinction, did not indicate an advance on thinking since the CoI’s deliberations. Similarly, Rhino Horn Trade Africa (RHTA) has discussed on its website the status of domestic and international rhino horn trade, but without the level of detailed research identified as necessary by the CoI.

In principle, Save the Rhino International is in favour of sustainable-use policies, controversial though they can be. Since 1968, South Africa has permitted the hunting of Southern white rhino and data from the IUCN African Rhino Specialist Group shows that since hunting began, the numbers of Southern white rhino have increased from 1,800 to more than 20,000. Statistics like this lead us to support sustainable use policies, and therefore we are not opposed to legalising the international trade in rhino horn per se.

However, the CoI’s Summary Report is an excellent reference base that illustrates just how complex this issue is. It would be extremely helpful to see the full report of the CoI, in order to be able to assess whether South Africa has met its own indicators and targets in the five key areas identified, without achieving which international trade is, per its own Summary Report, not recommended.

Those advocating an international trade in rhino horn would do well to divide up between themselves the areas of work requiring further research and consultation. Perhaps then, those hesitant about opening up this trade would be reassured that every possible loophole or unintended consequence had been avoided. Even then, it’s unlikely that those opposed to sustainable use in principle would ever condone such a move; this being a debate that rapidly moves beyond the confines of economics.

On the basis of the information currently available, Save the Rhino International does not believe that those in favour of legalising the international trade in rhino horn have adequately considered and resolved the complex issues available. For that reason, we would not currently support moves to legalise the international trade in rhino horn.

There will always be different ideas for the future of rhino conservation and the best methods or approaches to save rhinos, and these may not be mutually exclusive. Outsiders may look at the war of words between those in favour of, those hesitant about, and those opposed to legalising the trade in rhino horn and legitimately wonder why rhino conservationists cannot agree on the subject. We’re all on the rhinos’ side after all.

The reason that this debate generates more heat than light may simply be that no one can know for certain what the real impact of opening up such a trade would be, and there are plausible arguments that it would be positive or negative. Answering the CoI’s questions or addressing its concerns may go some way to ensuring the outcome is more likely to be net positive, but that’s probably about as forcefully as the argument can be made. Beware anyone who makes definitive statements about an uncertain future.

When the stakes – the survival or extinction of rhinos – are this high, everyone’s nervous about the risk of making the wrong decision.



  1. https://cites.org/sites/default/files/eng/cop/17/prop/060216/E-CoP17-Prop-07.pdf
  2. https://cites-analysis.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/proposal/attachments_en/67/Prop_7_Rhino_.pdf  
  3. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2351989420306867#bib114 

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