Melanie Gosling

Environment Writer

SOUTH Africa’s selling of 18 tons of stockpiled rhino horn in an attempt to flood the market and bring the price down could backfire and put the rhino population in greater danger, says the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).

IFAW regional director for southern Africa, Jason Bell, believes the government’s proposal to ask Cites to sanction a one-off sale of the country’s horn – with a black market value of about R11 billion – will not make the illegal trade go away, and may even stimulate the market to want more.

“If we were dealing with a species where the numbers were not a problem that would be a different matter, but we’ve passed the tipping point with rhino… It’s a very dangerous experiment and could very easily be detrimental to rhino.”

Bell said the government’s economic argument was naive, as no one knew the parameters of the illegal rhino horn trade, so could not say what the effect of selling the stockpile would be. “The reality is no one would be able to control it. The Chinese are not able to control the legal ivory trade. In China syndicates are already stockpiling ivory and horn for investment, as a hedge fund on future demands,” Bell said.

Legalising the trade could put more horn into the hands of syndicates, who would hoard it to control the price.

International trade in rhino horn is banned under Cites. However the government will ask Cites at its meeting in 2016 to sanction a once-off sale of the 16 347kg government rhino horn stockpile and the 2 091kg stockpile in private hands.

Rudi van Aarde, head of the conservation ecology research unit at the University of Pretoria, believes legalising the trade “could badly backfire”.

“Having sensitised the world to the plight of rhinos and the problems of the illegal trade, then to have government ask to be able to sell rhino horn legally, is going to cost us. South Africa has won accolades for conservation internationally. We’ve done a lot of good things. To throw that away in pursuit of R11bn will be selling off our international goodwill, and that is quite a price to pay,” Van Aarde said.

The Endangered Wildlife Trust said there were dangers in legalising the international trade without understanding the uncertainties. These included whether South Africa was able to regulate the trade, particularly to keep illegal horn out of the trade. Also, no country had expressed an interest in importing legal horn or in setting up mechanisms to control it.

The Worldwide Fund for Nature said while anti-poaching measures required a lot of investment, legalising the horn trade would require further investment, particularly to establish a regulatory framework. Legalising the trade was not a feasible approach until this had been addressed.

Chris Galliers, biodiversity programme manager of the Wildlife and Environment Society of SA, has cautioned against trying to legalise the trade when doing so carried so many unknowns.