MORE than 30 years after governments agreed to ban the international trade in rhino horns, the slaughter rate has got much worse, not better.
More than 95 percent of Africa’s remaining rhinos were wiped out within 20 years of the 1977 ban.
And in SA, the largest-remaining bastion of wild rhino protection, massive holes have been punched through the law enforcement barriers which once protected the country’s rhinos from ruthless underworld crime syndicates.
More than 1 000 rhinos have been slaughtered here in just four years. Every year the death rate climbs steadily, despite government pledges to tackle horn poachers head-on.
Inevitably, this mounting death rate has triggered renewed calls for a revision of rhino-protection strategies – including a highly controversial proposal to lift or relax the global trading ban.
The broad theory is that legalising the sale of SA’s massive rhino horn stockpiles could help to drive down soaring black market prices and reduce the need to poach or kill living rhinos.
So far the government has not given any firm signal on whether it will support the proposal, but the Department of Environmental Affairs opened the door to this option last September when it commissioned two new studies to probe the likely impacts of opening up a legal national and world trade in rhino horn.
The ban has been in place since 1977, when 175 member states of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) voted to halt the global sale of rhino products.
The proposal to lift this ban is not new. Nor is it motivated solely by private sector interests which stand to profit financially.
More than a decade ago – long before the current poaching crisis hit SA – former Natal Parks Board chief executive Dr George Hughes said the ban was well intentioned, but ultimately the strategy had failed to protect rhinos.
“Traditional Chinese medicine is an unbelievably powerful force and cannot simply be legislated into extinction,” Hughes said.
Late last year, rhino conservation stalwart Dr Ian Player called for an urgent debate on reopening the legal trade.
“There is much opposition from the animal rights movement, with which I have sympathy… but we have to devise other means of ensuring the survival of rhinos. Conservation agencies are desperately short of money. Surely it is in the interest of the rhino and conservation economics that we legalise the sale of rhino horn accumulated through natural mortality,” suggested Player.
Over the past year, the proposal has been debated informally at several gatherings. Here is a brief summary of some of the positions “for”, “against” or “in between”:
Johannesburg-based private investment manager Michael Eustace has likened the CITES rhino horn trading ban to the failed alcohol prohibition era in the US.
And, just as many Americans continued to demand alcohol when it was against the law, so too would many Chinese continue to demand rhino horn, heedless of Western opposition based on animal rights, morality or conservation.
“Banning trade has been ineffectual and has pushed the trade of rhino horn underground, and money is being made by criminals rather than parks. To hope that things will change for the better while following the same failed strategy is senseless.”
Instead, Eustace argues that SA should set up a central selling organisation (CSO) similar to what the De Beers group has used to control world diamond sales.
The organisation would be owned pro rata by the government and private rhino owners, and would hold monthly sales at OR Tambo International Airport. Payments would be made directly to rhino owners rather than criminal syndicates.
All horns would be properly marked and have a DNA signature so that their origin could be traced and proved.
According to Eustace, selling horns under these conditions would eliminate the possibility of corruption and horn laundering.
Most buyers would be Chinese state-owned pharmaceutical companies, which would retail traditional rhino horn medicine at a 100 percent profit. Such profit levels would ensure that the Chinese government clamped down on illegal rhino horn markets.
Eustace estimates SA could supply at least 600 horns every year from natural rhino deaths and historical stockpiles, while private rhino owners could provide another 1 000 horns a year by regular horn “harvesting”.
“This means that, if necessary, we could supply twice the current demand without any killing.”
Michael ’t Sas-Rolfes, a Cape Town conservation economist, also argues that a legally structured rhino trading system could offer a more effective and lasting solution to the escalating poaching crisis.
First, trade would be out in the open, and the black market price would almost certainly drop.
Second, the sustainable supply of rhino horns would reduce and possibly eliminate incentives for criminals and speculators to stockpile horns.
Third, legal suppliers of rhino horns would be guaranteed an income, some of which could be invested in improved rhino protection and breeding rates.
Sceptical or against:
For many wildlife lovers, combining commercial profit and nature conservation can spell a dangerous mix. They fear that farming the rhino for its horns could transform one of Africa’s iconic Big Five species into little more than a domestic pig or chicken.
Opponents doubt that commercial horn trading will shut down the black market, and fear that adding extra supplies will feed the fires of demand.
Trade sceptics and prohibitionists are also worried that legal trading could harm rhino conservation efforts in much of Africa and Asia by allowing criminals to continue laundering illegal horns.
According to wildlife conservationist Chris Mercer, rhino farming will “take the wild out of wildlife”.
“Farming rhinos will certainly increase numbers, but breeding animals in relatively small camps for their horns has nothing to do with conservation and everything to do with factory farming.”
While the arguments in favour of a CSO sound plausible, Mercer says any attempt to legalise the trade rests on the assumption that governments and the private sector are incorruptible, whereas corruption is endemic in many parts of the world.
He also doubts whether releasing new stocks would cause black market prices to nosedive, or put an end to hoarding and speculation.
“The ‘economic’ approach tries to justify animal exploitation by numbers, both animals and dollars. But numbers alone are hopelessly inadequate to understand environmental degradation, or to fight it.
“This narrow economic approach could be used by drug and human traffickers as well as car hijackers to justify their abominable activities.”
Margot Stewart, a wildlife lover who gave evidence at the recent parliamentary portfolio committee hearing on rhino poaching, questioned who would benefit most from a legalised horn trade.
“This potential gain is destined for the pockets of a few unscrupulous ‘feudal lords’. These are the people who tickle our ears and are behind the drive to legitimise the trade in rhino horn, and they have been stockpiling in anticipation of this.”
David Balfour, manager of scientific services for the Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency, is not opposed to selling the horns from rhinos which die of natural causes.
However, he is opposed to any commercial horn farming within SA, fearing that captive breeding for profit could put the genetic integrity of wild rhinos at risk.