Only qualified buyers and sellers will be able to participate in the online sales process, which includes the viewing of horn, sale details and information governing the ability to buy and sell.Picture: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
There’s an image of a rhino on a tightrope on Dreadnought Capital’s website, which reads “Everything begins with an idea”, flashing to the image. “Anything is possible.”

That rhino reference is “entirely coincidental”, says Allan Thomson, chief executive of the Sandton-based firm, who believes a new online rhino horn trade desk his firm is managing for South Africa’s private owners will help manoeuvre the imperilled species towards long-term survival.

Rhino Horn Trade Africa (RHTA) was launched this week by the Private Rhino Owners Association, which hailed it as a “groundbreaking initiative” to undermine illegal trade and bolster rhino protection.

Dreadnought Capital will facilitate the “controlled, transparent sale of clean humanely acquired rhino horn (from dehorned rhinos) between genuine permit-holding qualified sellers and buyers in line with environmental laws and Financial Intelligence Centre Act regulations.

“We’ve done a lot of soul-searching about this but what we’re trying to do is change the fact that rhino is no longer a liability,” he says.

“If it doesn’t work, it will be stopped immediately. But, in the absence of trying it, what are the other solutions right now?” interjects Thomson’s colleague, Warren de Klerk, the managing director of RHTA. “The poaching has been going (on) for 10 years. Who’s going to step in to save the rhino on private farms, where money is being paid to protect them?”

On a restricted part of the website, De Klerk reveals three sets of photographs. Consignment number 1802001 shows two horns, while two others advertise six horns and 11 more, each with a DNA certificate. “These are three consign- ments we have but they are not available to anyone yet.”

Only qualified buyers and sellers will be able to participate in the online sales process, which includes the viewing of horn, sale details and information governing the ability to buy and sell.

“We have about 17 sellers on our books and they make up a number of private reserves. But this is not open to even them. There are no buyers yet.”

Nearly a year ago, the Constitutional Court set aside the moratorium on rhino horn trading, making regulated domestic trade legal. However, it remains illegal to trade internationally under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites).

Thomson’s company will independently verify that the horn is “blood free” and the association is working with the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at the University of Pretoria at Onderstepoort to ensure that all rhino horn sold is first recorded on the Rhino DNA Index System, or RhODIS® database.

“We’re not expecting big internal demand but we want to put this process in place where we can absolutely guarantee no blood horn will enter the market,” says Thomson. “We’ve received a lot of thank you letters and support but we know the hate mail will come.”

Dr Mike Knight, chairperson of the SADC Rhino Management Group, views the initiative positively. “The trade in rhino horn is legal in South Africa. The next thing is, how do you do it? What they’ve done is centralised the horn stock, with a lot of rules and regulations on how you can access and sell that horn.

“Our perspective is that this is good because what it’s doing is bringing horn into a centralised place, where it is managed and audited, and the important thing is to be able to monitor to what degree it has any positive or negative impact on poaching.”

Dr Andrew Taylor from the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s wildlife in trade programme supports the responsible and sustainable use of natural resources and remains sympathetic to the challenges faced by defenders of rhinos, including private rhino owners.

“Given the ruling of the Constitutional Court to set aside the moratorium, the EWT recognises the right of private rhino owners to sell horn within South Africa, as long as they do so within the confines of environmental legislation.

“As there is no substantial market for rhino horn within South Africa, who will buy horn on the trade platform? If there’s a speculative market for horn within South Africa, are the potential investors aware there’s currently limited support for international trade within Cites, and no indication that this will change in the near future? If international commercial trade in rhino horn remains under a Cites ban, what do the investors plan to do with their horn to avoid losing their money?”

TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, notes how an auction by John Hume, the world’s largest rhino owner, last year did not yield substantial sales. “Although the exact number of horns sold was never made public, the Department of Environmental Affairs revealed that just a handful of permits were issued relating to it: Surely the experiment was tested but failed? So why the intention once more to promote legal trade, when all the key objections to a legalised trade remain in place?”

Mary Rice, of the Environmental Investigation Agency, says “parallel legal markets undermine enforcement and demand reduction efforts”.

But Pelham Jones, the chairperson of the association, who reveals around 350kg of rhino horn has been sold legally within South Africa since November, remains resolute that legal trade is the solution.

“Today, over 7000 rhino, more than the rest of Africa combined, are on private reserves. We’ve spent over R2 billion on security and management with zero assistance. Our members risk their lives and that of their staff to protect these animals.”

The Saturday Star