080209 BANDILE Mkhize, the former managing executive of the Kruger National Park, has been appointed CEO of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife

At first glimpse it seems incongruous, a leader in conservation pleading for the legalisation of trade in animal products that are today regarded as contraband.

Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife boss Dr Bandile Mkhize’s plea for controlled sales of rhino horn is bound to be controversial. It is certainly radical, a move in desperation to combat the increasing slaughter of these precious, tank-like beasts.

As he argued in an interview published in this newspaper on Monday, nothing else has stopped poachers who now kill hundreds of them each year for “medicinal” purposes. A dwindling herd is not far off – in three years the kill rate will exceed births. So far this year, 220 have been slain, 21 of them in KZN.

There will be those who scorn the Mkhize idea, unable to reconcile a sworn protector advocating a central organisation selling rhino horn.

Mkhize argues precisely, though: legal trade should include only those horns from natural death, from court exhibits in poaching cases, and from the existing stockpile.

This tack, he believes, would badly wound the poachers’ market.

Ian Player, prominent in saving the white rhino from extinction, has for some months pushed for legalised horn sales under similar, strict control. The stockpile of horn arising from natural deaths amounts, apparently, to more than R1 billion.

Player would be an authoritative supporter, one with a great history in conservation – of the rhino, especially – and an excellent ally to have in tabling such a bold plan.

Mkhize is taking the lead among our official conservationists on the rhino issue. He aims to develop it further, and lobby for a united South African approach on it at the 16th conference of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) in Thailand in March.

His initiative must be thoroughly examined and debated. If it does pass scrutiny and he takes it to that conference, it must have all our support. Otherwise it stands no chance.