Rhino horn stockpiles – to store or destroy?

Image of two rangers next to four seized rhino horns.

In 2005, Simon Milledge, formerly of TRAFFIC, wrote a publication titled Rhino Horn Stockpile Management: Minimum standards and best practices from east and southern Africa. The following year, the book was shortlisted for the Bookseller / Diagram Prize for Oddest Title of the Year. However, the subject is a serious one and, fast-forward nine years, we doubt anyone could have envisaged the relevance of the issue.

Many rhino horns in stockpiles come from natural rhino mortalities. When dealing with a rhino carcass, the rhino’s horns are immediately removed to prevent them being taken by poachers; each country will have its own standard operating procedures that dictate the process needed. Government agencies have secure central storerooms in confidential locations. Private rhino owners may also have safes or strong-rooms. Storerooms may also contain those recovered from poaching incidents and any horns removed during dehorning operations. Zoos and wildlife parks are responsible for dealing with the horns of deceased captive animals. And there are many antique rhino horns and trophy mounts across the world in museums, galleries and private collections.

These rhino horn stockpiles can’t simply be locked up and forgotten about. Due to the high value of rhino horn and the risk of horns being leaked onto the black market, there are lots of rules surrounding the processes and checks done on rhino horn stockpiles. Managing a rhino horn stockpile involves scrupulous record-keeping and auditing procedures in place, including weighing, measuring and cataloguing each horn and taking DNA samples. Managing a stockpile is a lot of work and rhino horns are difficult to keep in a good condition. As natural substances, rhino horns suffer from damage, weevils and mites.

Since 2008, the demand for rhino horn has skyrocketed, presenting difficult challenges for those tasked with protecting rhinos and their precious horns, whether still attached to the rhino or not. Individuals, organisations and governments now have to deal with a tricky issue: should rhino horns be stored securely or destroyed? And if they are to be destroyed, then should this be done in a high-profile burning or crushing demonstration?

Over the last year, governments including the US, France, China and the Philippines have organised public displays showing the destruction of ivory stockpiles, leading many to question whether the same should be done with rhino horn stockpiles too. Dvur Kralove Zoo is organising a public burning of Czech and Slovak rhino horns on 22 September 2014, to mark World Rhino Day.

There are a number of arguments in favour of destroying rhino horn stockpiles.

There are very high costs and dangers associated with the management of rhino horn stockpiles. With the soaring value of rhino horn, stockpiles present a large target for thieves and substantial sums are needed to ensure adequate security of the strongroom and to reduce the risk of danger to staff. For example, in April 2014, 112 horns were stolen during a night-time raid at South Africa’s Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency, and in September 2014 Dave and Loma Powrie of Sabi Sands in South Africa were stabbed in their home by burglars apparently looking for rhino horns.

In countries or on reserves where there are limited resources or concerns about corruption, it may be better to destroy horns immediately, thus eliminating the risk of leakage onto the black market.

Those advocating the destruction say that the burning and crushing horns gains publicity and makes a political statement that rhino horn is worth nothing, that destroying rhino horn stockpiles sends a strong signal to the criminal networks that the smuggling of rhino horn will not be tolerated.

Others argue that the only reason for hanging on to horns is because of the possibility of a future legal trade in rhino horn; those not in favour of this tend to advocate for the destruction of stockpiles.

Conversely, there are reasons why not to destroy rhino horn stockpiles.

As referred to above, one reason why both private owners and state agencies are currently stockpiling horns in South Africa is the country’s interest (not yet confirmed as certain) in tabling a proposal to legalise the trade in rhino horn at the 2016 CITES meeting. If the proposal were successful, this would allow rhino owners to sell their rhino horns legally and use the profits received to cover their spiralling security costs.

There are other reasons too. Historically, rhino horns have been stored for record-keeping purposes and geneticists can recover DNA from horns that can be traced back to individual animals. Important learnings about genetic diversity in living and deceased animals are now informing rhino translocations. Storing genetic material like rhino horns maintains evidence on rhino mortalities that may be used in rhino-crime prosecutions: rhino horns recovered from poaching incidents are key pieces of evidence.

Several zoos (not just Zoo Dvur Kralove) have announced plans to publicly destroy stockpiles. A planned burn in North Carolina Zoo in the USA had to be postponed while legal issues concerning the destruction of state property were examined. Another issue is that such publicity draws attention to the fact that zoos may be in possession of valuable horns. If such displays are advertised in advance, then good security will be needed at the event.

What is the objective behind a public burn event? Is it a publicity stunt? Is a public burn the best use of time and money? Some have argued that the burn will result in reducing the demand for rhino horn amongst East Asian consumers, but what is the message that will go to the criminal syndicates? There are real concerns that destroying rhino horns simply helps drive up the price of rhino horns, by making them even rarer and harder to buy illegally.

Finally, it is important to think of other uses of rhino horn rather than destroying them. For example, Save the Rhino was given a pair of horns a few years ago. When thefts from European zoos, museums and galleries began occurring, we became worried about the security of the horns and of our staff. We contacted the Metropolitan Police, who arranged for the horns to be donated to the UK Borders Agency, for use in training sniffer dogs at London airports.

Our conclusion is that rhino horns should not be destroyed, unless there is a real concern about safeguarding their secure storage, in which case they should be destroyed in accordance with the laws of the country concerned, but with no publicity.

Photo credits Mark Carwardine, SRT, SRI

Further reading

6 thoughts on “Rhino horn stockpiles – to store or destroy?

  1. Only a depraved species like humankind could be so ignorant, greed driven and heartless. It makes me embarrassed to be a member of it. I say death, or at least life for both poachers and consumers of wildlife of any type. They should all go to hell. FAST !

  2. One question I have wondered about for years is whether stockpiles of Sumatran horn exist anywhere in the world??

    There was an article titled ‘Banking on Extinction’ a few years ago that suggest rhino horn dealers were banking on the extinction of the black rhinoceros so that the value of stockpiles of its horn would skyrocket. There was no mention of the even more critically endangered Javan and Sumatran Rhinoceroses, but it made me wonder if stockpiles of Javan and/or Sumatran horn are kept by any dealers??

    If stockpiles of Sumatran and/or Javan horn do exist, they might of course date from before the major crash in rhinoceros populations in Africa (though then rhino survived in Thailand, Vietnam and possibly other Asian nations who have lost their populations since). That would in fact mean that dealers have long known the potential for rhinoceros extinction to benefit them financially in the long term.

    The value for record-keeping of rhino horns is substantial and would be more so if the Sumatran species does go extinct.

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