Since the ban on the domestic trade of rhino horn was lifted, a strongly polarized and fierce debate ensued. The moratorium which was put in place in 2009 following a surge in poaching was initially lifted in December 2015. This was followed by an appeal by the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) temporarily reinstating the ban. The DEA appeal was officially declined last month. According to the Constitutional Court ruling, anyone with a permit can buy and sell rhino horns and would be allowed to export a maximum of two horns for personal use.
What Makes Rhino Horns So Valuable?
For the benefit of those who don’t know a rhino horn from a light sabre...
Rhino horns are composed of keratin – the ordinary component of hair and nails. So why is this glorified protein so coveted by our friends in the east? Simply put – myth. In countries like China and Vietnam, it is believed to hold aphrodisiac properties. It has also been fabled to treat a medley of ailments from fevers, headaches, and hangovers to demonic possession (yes that’s right). Back in the 90’s, a simple rumor of a Vietnamese politician being cured of cancer resulted in a trend of oncology patients all across Asia combining powdered rhino horn with chemotherapy.
In recent years, the acquisition of a rhino horn has become a status symbol among the Vietnamese elite and this has been credited as the root stimulus of the current crises. The exploitation of the superstitious beliefs and status ambitions of consumers has pushed the commercial value of rhino horns higher than gold.
Rhino Poaching Statistics
The last decade saw more than 7,000 African rhinos killed for their horns. Between 2007 and 2014, there was a colossal rise in poaching of an unfathomable 9,000%, while statistics from last year reflect that 1,054 rhinos were poached in South Africa alone (nearly 3 rhinos a day). At this rate, our rhinos could follow in the footsteps of the West African black rhino and become extinct in less than 10 years.
Lifting the Ban on Trade
Many private rhino breeders are in favor of the motion, while most conservation groups fear that this will be the final nail in the coffin for rhinos. Let’s look at the main arguments on either side of the fence.
Why Legalize Trade?
Pro-trade lobbyists believe that legal trade would kill the black market. Consumers would favor the legal product and abandon illegal traders. The hope is that flooding the market with the legal product would bring down the value of the horns whilst increasing the value of live rhinos.
In the meantime, commercial traders are facing heavy expenses to protect their rhinos and being able to sell horns would alleviate costs ensuring the viability of operations.
Another notion is that ancient traditions and beliefs are impervious to change. Many argue that thus far, awareness efforts have not been successful in debunking the mythical beliefs and altering cultural perceptions of consumers.
Advocates of legal trade also argue that since all other efforts, including the 1977 CITES international trade ban have failed, legalizing trade is the last option. They believe that sustainable utilization is possible. The idea is that since rhino horn is a renewable resource, it can be harvested regularly by de-horning without any harm to the animal.
But on the flip side...
Why Legalizing Trade is a Bad Idea
Research indicates that legalizing trade stimulates demand and black market trading. An ivory trade study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research reflects that the 2008 ivory sale resulted in a 66% increase in black market production. Legalizing trade in rhino horns is likely to have the same effect.
Those lobbying against trade also fear that authorities would be incapable of regulating legal trade. South Africa’s reputation for corruption and poor law enforcement would further hinder regulation efforts. Creating legal channels also provides a convenient avenue through which illegal horns can be sold.
Legal trade sets the precedent that it is acceptable to exploit endangered animals. It also perpetuates existing myths of medicinal value. We should be moving away from these notions instead of encouraging them. By doing so we are compromising the protection efforts of other threatened animals. It is counter-intuitive to try and reduce demand for something while increasing supply. Legalizing trade may reverse any progress made by awareness campaigns and education initiatives.
It cannot be ignored that the most prominent supporters of legalization are private owners and commercial breeders who would profit the most and so are not entirely without agenda. It is not sustainable utilization if the supply cannot meet the demand. Rhino horns can take up to two years to fully grow back. And there are not enough rhinos to satisfy the market long term. The farming of rhinos also comes with environmental, ecological, and ethical drawbacks.
Captive breeding hampers the natural behavior of an animal. Rhinos need their horns for defense and other functions. Removing the horn disregards this and impacts their social behavior. Moreover, these are not herd animals. Overstocking land with a territorial species is ill-considered, not to mention the increased risk of spreading disease, and the physical stresses of de-horning which must be done every 2 to 3 years.
It is also not an ecologically sound practice since species diversity will be affected, and more land will be sacrificed for farming instead of encouraging bio-diverse ecosystems.
Captive breeding programs are vital for the preservation of certain species where the purpose is for reintroduction into the wild but it cannot be justified for every species or issue - especially when it is highly uncertain as to whether it could be a viable solution.
On the Plus Side...
While the domestic trade of rhino horn in South Africa is now allowed, the CITES global ban on international commercial trade remains in place.
Pro-trade lobbyists do have some valid arguments, but we cannot simply dismiss the conservation efforts of the last decade or ignore that progress has been hampered by corruption. Brash legalization will further hinder any progress.
We need to understand that demand reduction is a gargantuan feat and not something that can be accomplished overnight. This has not been the first serious spike in rhino poaching in Southern Africa. The period between the 1970’s and the early 1990’s saw a tremendous increase in poaching with 96% of the black rhino population lost. But through international pressure, intensive campaigning, and conservation efforts, population numbers recovered and poaching was significantly reduced to an average of 14 rhinos per year until 2005 when the new surge hit.
As far as changing cultural perceptions is concerned - it is worthy to bear in mind that long before the elevation of a certain black and white bear as China’s national symbol, the Chinese believed that sleeping on panda fur could ward off ghosts and regulate a woman’s menstrual cycle. Today the giant panda is a heavily protected national icon slowly climbing back from the brink of extinction. It has taken decades to see this slight progress but this conservation victory is a leading example of gradual species reclamation through multiple conservation strategies.