South Africa has moved another step closer towards scrapping the 30-year-old world ban on rhino horn trading that has largely failed to stem a bloody wave of illegal poaching across the continent.
Environment Minister Edna Molewa issued a formal invitation to the public on Monday to present opinions on whether the country should seek permission to start selling rhino horns legally to China, Vietnam and other Eastern nations in a bid to slow down the relentless decimation of the rhino population.
Molewa urged interested organisations and individuals to make formal presentations to a 10-member “panel of experts” that would make a final recommendation to a joint committee of ministers before the end of the year.
A cabinet decision in April last year authorised the Department of Environmental Affairs to investigate the feasibility of selling rhino horns in an effort to reduce the rhino poaching bloodbath.
However, the final decision rests with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), whose 177-member states will meet in South Africa two years from now.
Although the government insists it has not taken a final decision on whether to push for a resumption of legal rhino horn trading, South Africa is widely expected to submit a formal proposal to Cites in 2016 to allow a limited and strictly regulated form of legal sales in rhino horn to curb the black-market trade involving organised crime syndicates.
Statistics released on Monday showed that at least 496 rhinos have been butchered for their horns in the first six months of this year, suggesting that the year-end death toll will rise above the record level of more than 1 000 rhinos killed last year.
South Africa’s decision to investigate legal horn trading has generated considerable controversy locally and internationally, despite domestic support from some prominent conservationists, Ezem-velo KZN Wildlife, several economists and private rhino owners.
They argue that proceeds from the sale of rhino horns could then be used to support rhino conservation, rather than lining the pockets of criminal syndicates and speculators.
Rhino conservation stalwart Ian Player, for example, argues that selling horns from existing government stockpiles and from animals that die of natural causes could help to satisfy the demand for rhino horns in the Far East, thereby reducing financial incentives for poaching live animals.
This could involve a Central Selling Organisation, similar to the De Beers diamond-selling model, that would offer horns for sale through a structure aimed to cut out unregulated criminal syndicates.
But several conservationists and economists are firmly opposed to the proposal, arguing that legalising the horn trade would simply encourage an unsustainable demand and undermine efforts to conserve rhinos in their wild environment .
They argue that it would be difficult to prevent poached horns from being laundered into a new legal system of trading that could further fuel high-level corruption and reduce wild rhinos to little more than agricultural products such as cow meat or mealie cobs.
Molewa said the panel had met twice to discuss the scope of its work. This included an analysis of the illegal trade in rhino horns and options available to halt illegal killings.
It had also debated a range of new options for the sustainable use of natural resources and the socio-economic impacts of wildlife trafficking on communities, game farms, private game reserves, conservation agencies, with “special focus” on communities living next to game reserves.
One of the debates was around the type of rhino trading model – such as whether horns should be sold in “once-off sales” of state stockpiles, government-to-government sales or a “more open, regulated trade” that was likely to include private rhino traders who conserve almost 25 percent of South Africa’s rhinos.
The panel would also have to examine the possible impacts on other nations if South Africa were to decide to sell horns legally. This would include other rhino-range states such as Kenya, Bots-wana and Zimbabwe.