Is legalising rhino horn the best way to save the rhino?

Earlier this year, South Africa backed away from a proposal to legalise the rhino horn trade. We talk to Save The Rhino International about the arguments for and against, and the rhino’s future if a solution can’t be found. 

Sadly, among the nouveau-riche of Asia’s middle classes, rhino horn is very much back in fashion. It’s a devastating trend for one of the most striking and recognisable land mammals to roam our planet.

“The current poaching crisis is attributed to the growing demand for rhino horn in Asian countries, mainly Vietnam and China”, says Katherine Johnson, Communications Manager of the UK-based charity, Save The Rhino International. “Vietnam has been identified as the largest user country, in part due to economic growth and rise of a wealthy business elite who are the key consumers for rhino horn.” The boom in demand can be traced back to a rumour that circulated within the Southeast Asian country a decade or so back that rhino horn, crushed into a powder, had ‘cured’ a politician’s cancer. It reignited a myth that has existed in the region for centuries: that the rhino’s horn boasts healing qualities. Soon, locals hoping to cure everything from fevers to hangovers were seeking the remedy – whatever the cost.

As we know, rhino horn is made of keratin – the same protein found in our fingernails and hair – therefore it can claim no medicinal properties whatsoever. But that hasn’t deterred poachers from dusting off their rifles. The going rate for horns in Asia has skyrocketed; pound for pound, it is now worth more in Vietnam than gold or platinum. And the rising prices are only further fuelling the level of demand: among the wealthy, rhino horn is coveted as a status symbol.

“There are concerns that legalising the rhino horn trade would legitimise it”

“The high price fetched for the horn has attracted the involvement of ruthless criminal syndicates,” says Johnson.  “They use high-tech equipment to track down and kill the rhinos for billions of dollars a year, while leaving a trail of devastation behind, impacting not only wildlife and local communities, but also global security.”

As a result, the Javan rhino was quickly poached to extinction in Vietnam. But the problem extends far beyond the country’s borders – or even those of the Asian continent. With the reclusive Sumatran and Javan rhinos being both rare and difficult to track down, poachers have turned to Africa’s rhino population in order to meet their demands – with devastating results. The number of rhinos poached on the continent has risen for the last six years on the bounce, and by a frightening margin. In 2007, the country of South Africa, home to an estimated 80 per cent of the world’s rhino population, lost 13 rhinos to poaching. In 2015, that number rose to 1,175.

White rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum) adult and juvenile running profile, Gauteng Province, Rietvlei Nature Reserve, South Africa
Juvenile White Rhinos will stay with their mother for two to four years


Worryingly, the crisis has spread to neighbouring countries in southern Africa. “During 2015, Namibia lost 80 rhinos to poaching, up from 25 in 2014 and just two in 2012,” says Johnson. “In Zimbabwe, it is reported that at least 50 rhinos were poached last year, more than double the previous year. For Africa as a whole, the total number of rhinos poached during 2015 was the highest in two decades.” If the killing continues to rise at this rate, Save The Rhino International predicts that we could see a tipping point where rhino deaths begin to outstrip births – perhaps as soon as this year, 2016.

Against this backdrop, it may seem strange that the conversation in rhino conservation circles this year was dominated by the possibility that South Africa would table a proposal to CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) to end the 39-year ban on the international rhino horn trade.

Yet, on paper at least, you can make a convincing argument for its legalisation. It’s a matter of working with demand, rather than against it; like our fingernails, rhino horn grows back, as long as it’s cut above the root. The country is sitting on a massive stockpile of farmed rhino horns worth around 1 billion US dollars, and in theory, making it available on the international market would allow the demand to be met without the need for more slaughter. Hypothetically, it is an infinite resource.

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However, Save The Rhino International is not in favour of a one-off sale of the stockpile for a number of reasons. Firstly, there are concerns that legalising the rhino horn trade would in turn legitimise it. Before the current poaching crisis, trade bans and awareness campaigns had done much to reduce demand in countries such as Japan, Taiwan and Yemen. Between 1990 and 2005, South Africa lost just 14 rhinos a year through poaching, which proves it is possible to reduce demand through education.

Yet, on paper at least, you can make a convincing argument for its legalisation. It’s a matter of working with demand, rather than against it; like our fingernails, rhino horn grows back, as long as it’s cut above the root.

Secondly, for a one-off sale to work, South Africa would need to find a trade partner capable of managing a tightly controlled trade in rhino horn. Even if a partner, such as China, came forward, demand in other countries would still have to be met illegally. And in any case, there’s no guarantee that buyers would flood the market with their freshly-acquired horns. Instead they might stockpile them and wait for the species’ extinction, at which point they could sell them off for an even more significant profit. The proposal raises as many questions as it does answers. The fear is of a repeat of 2008’s disastrous decision to legalise the sale of African elephant ivory stockpiles to China and Japan, which saw elephant poaching numbers rise to an all-time high.

In the end, South Africa opted to back away from the proposal, a decision Save The Rhino International believes is the right one. “This is a good and brave decision by the South African government,” says Cathy Dean, the company’s Director. “They are to be applauded firstly for having gathered a panel of experts to form the official Committee of Enquiry to consider all the issues involved in legalising the trade in rhino horn, and secondly for taking on board the recommendations made by the Committee when reaching their decision.” Nonetheless, the debate looks set to rage on. Following South Africa’s withdrawal, Swaziland launched an 11th hour proposal of its own, leading to claims from other countries that it was acting as South Africa’s ‘puppet’. A leaked document instead pointed to the countries’ desire to recoup the costs of rhino protection.

“If poaching continues at the current rate then it is a very real reality that most wild rhinos will be poached until all species are almost extinct within the next ten years,”

But for Save The Rhino International, the answer still lies in education. In May 2016, the company partnered with Vietnamese organisation Education for Nature to launch a new campaign called Save The Rhino Vietnam. It is fronted by Arrow and Lagaan actor Paul Blackthorne, who has delivered speeches at schools and universities, and met influencers from the business and political spheres keen to raise awareness of Vietnam’s role in the trade.

But if the solution is unclear at this time, then the urgent import to find one is crystal clear. “If poaching continues at the current rate then it is a very real reality that most wild rhinos will be poached until all species are almost extinct within the next ten years,” says Johnson. “We wouldn’t lose all rhinos, but there is a high likelihood that we would be left with very heavily guarded small populations of rhinos that are not wild as we know them today. A sudden and desperately sad end to a mammal that has roamed our planet’s grasslands for millions of years.

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