Two farmers wanting to sell their rhino horn stockpiles won a court battle to set aside a 2009 moratorium on trade. The National Council of SPCAs foresees the farming of rhinos and unethical practices. File picture: EPA/DANIEL IRUNGU

Johannesburg - If it sticks, Thursday’s High Court ruling to overturn the moratorium on trade in rhino horn leaves South Africa in contravention of the Cites ban on international trade.

The Environmental Affairs Department has announced that it would challenge the contentious court decision.

Johannesburg is next year’s host city to Cites (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) 2016 in September and October. The international ban on trade in rhino horn is likely to dominate the agenda.

Johannesburg was a deliberate choice. Announcing the decision in June, Cites secretary-general John Scanlon said that South Africa “is a highly appropriate location given the frontline wildlife challenges and opportunities being tackled on the African continent”.

Dr Jo Shaw, WWF South Africa rhino programme manager, said: “The world’s eyes will be on South Africa in the run-up to the Cites talks. On the one hand it offers us an opportunity to showcase our success stories in conservation, but on the other hand we can see the Cites’ pattern of ban recommendations has been for countries to implement and enforce bans on domestic trade in rhino horn to be in place”.

Cites banned the international trade in rhino horn in 1977, while South Africa’s moratorium on trade came into effect – as Cites signatory – in February 2009.

Shaw said the moratorium was overturned in court on a technicality over how well it had been advertised to the public – “an oversight”.

She added: “The department’s court challenge does buy us some time. Also, no trade can take place without permits, which are still granted by the Department of Environment”.

South Africa lost 1 200 rhino last year alone, and rhino poaching has reached the proportions of a national crisis.

For game breeders, like the two successful challengers to the moratorium in court, trade in rhino horn generates income that can be channelled back into conservation efforts.

The pro-trade faction argues that commoditisation of rhino horn will help shut down the black market in illegal trade. Farming and harvesting rhino horn will satisfy demand in the Far East, and breeding will stop the extinction of the species, they say.

The National Council of SPCAs is scathing. An NSPCA statement said: “We fear that if the judgment stands, a further consequence will be our rhino will become farmed animals. Unethical practices may be used to increase profits, which are likely to include confining animals to the smallest spaces possible, feeding animals unnatural diets, and physically altering or maiming animals to prevent them from injuring one another when confined in limited spaces.

“Above all, rhinos are wild animals. They do not seek solace from being near to humans. Captivity, confinement and manipulation are foreign and stressful to them”.

Saturday Star