Selling rhino horns to China is not a pretty thought. Not even half-way through the year, South Africa has lost more than 280 rhinos in the worst poaching spree by organised criminals the country has ever seen.
That works out at more than one rhino a day in a nation that safeguards 93 percent of Africa’s white rhinos, 40 percent of Africa’s black rhinos and 73 percent of all the world’s surviving rhinos.
So it’s not surprising many people will find it hard to stomach the recent call by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife to lift the 30 year-old world ban on the sale of rhino horns.
Dumping the ban sounds very much like a capitulation to the poachers and a betrayal for those who work so passionately to save this magnificent dinosaur-like creature.
Yet the conservation crisis cannot be solved by a fortress mentality alone.
The fact of the matter is that the price of horns has shot through the roof, making it imperative to explore economic solutions rather than relying on the traditional solutions of prohibition or tighter security.
Whether rhino horn really has medicinal value is not really the issue. Powdered and shaved horn has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years. Beliefs cultivated over millennia cannot be eradicated overnight – and time is running out for the rhino.
In these circumstances, would it not make more sense to supply this market from legal stocks rather than restricting supply and encouraging an illegal and ruthless black-market trade?
Sensibly, the proponents of the new plan have built in an important escape hatch.
Former Ezemvelo planning chief Roger Porter has suggested that the world ban be lifted for a trial period of five years to see whether legal sales translate into a meaningful reduction in poaching. If not, the ban could always come back.
One of the reasons for this escape clause is the very real fear that supplying horns legally will simply feed a growing demand for luxury consumption and exacerbate the crisis.
For the sake of the rhino, this is a plan well worth looking at.