Roger Porter

Durban - SA rhino conservationists have unveiled details of a bold but controversial plan to curb the poaching crisis by selling rhino horns legally and directly to Chinese pharmaceutical companies.

The horns would be sold in much the same way as diamonds are sold by De Beers. Prices would be controlled by a central selling organisation, with sales at OR Tambo International Airport in Joburg four times a year.

No formal negotiations have been held with prospective foreign buyers, but the intention is to sell horns to eastern pharmaceutical companies to make traditional Chinese medicine, in an attempt to drive down black market demand by offering horns at a cheaper price.

To stop illegal horns being laundered with legal ones, all horns would be sold with certified proof of their origin, including DNA samples and transponder chips.

Money raised from the sales would be used to fund rhino protection. Local conservation agencies are battling to contain an unprecedented rhino poaching crisis in SA, which protects 90 percent of the world’s rhino population. More than 270 rhinos were killed in the first six months of the year, and three white rhinos were found shot dead and de-horned this week at Hluhluwe game reserve.

Details of the plan were presented for the first time at the International Wildlife Management Congress in Durban on Thursday by Roger Porter, former Ezemvelo conservation planning chief. He said that the plan offered a realistic chance of curbing poaching and reducing black market prices. Local poachers can make R250 000 from killing a single rhino, but foreign criminal syndicates pay even more when horns reach China and Vietnam.

Porter acknowledged that the proposal was not a silver bullet to halt poaching – and therefore proposed an important political escape hatch.

“Let’s try it out for five years and see what impact it has on poaching and black market prices,” he said. “If it reduces poaching significantly, let’s carry on with it. If it doesn’t, then you can stop the sales.”

Porter is the chief editor of the 18-page proposal, which has been sent to the national Department of Environmental Affairs to convince the cabinet to seek the lifting of the 30-year ban on rhino horn sales by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites). Porter said it was vital to mount a serious economic challenge to reduce the prices set by criminal syndicates facing no legal competitors. As horn stocks were in short supply, black market prices would continue to soar.

“At this stage we are not proposing harvesting any horns from live rhinos,” said Porter, noting that the only horns that could be sold would be those from natural rhino deaths, legally held government and private stockpiles and confiscations under court order.

So far, the government has been sitting on the fence on whether or not to submit a formal proposal to the next Cites meeting in April next year – but if the plan is to have any hope of making it to the negotiating table, the cabinet needs to endorse it in the next few months because Cites requires that advance proposals be lodged before October this year.

Speaking at the congress on Thursday, SanParks rhino specialist Mike Knight said that legalising horn sales might sound like heresy but SA needed to consider consumer states (like China and Vietnam) as part of the solution. “At the moment, we are carrying all the costs, while poachers are taking all the benefits,” he said.

Sanparks rhino security chief Ken Maggs said horn prices had exploded over the past few years. Local black market prices were around R65 000 to R80 000 a kilogram.

He said the syndicates included former cash-in-transit robbers and firearms smugglers who had discovered that rhino poaching offered higher rewards at much lower risk. - The Mercury