Could legalising horn trade save rhinos?

Rhinos in Kruger National Park,SA, file Some game farms in South Africa have resorted to de-horning rhinos before poachers get to them

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South Africa is considering legalising rhino horn trade - in a bid to combat rampant rhino poaching, but the suggestion has been met with mixed reaction in Southern Africa.

Demand for rhino horn is at an all time high and South Africa, which has the largest reserves of the wild animal, is a prime hunting ground for poachers.

Over the past three years, gangs are said to have killed more than 800 rhinos for their horns, which can fetch £22,000 ($35,055) per kg on the black market.

Poachers use a chainsaw to cut away the rhino's horns, after darting it with a tranquilizer - drugged and helpless the animal bleeds to death.

Large syndicates are involved in this multi-billion dollar trade worldwide - exporting the horns from Africa to parts of Asia and the Middle-East.

Despite many anti-poaching measures 310 have been killed in South Africa this year, more than 330 had been killed at the end of last year - and the numbers are set to increase, experts warn.

In the five years up to 2005, an average of 36 rhinos were killed each year.

Some say today's efforts are "too conventional" and are not enough.

Africa's rhino population

  • 80% Africa's rhino population is found in southern Africa
  • There are 4,500 black rhino in southern Africa
  • The black rhino population has decreased by 95% since the 1980s
  • There are 20,000 white rhino in South Africa alone
  • About 80% of Africa's rhinos are found on state-owned land and the rest on private property

Sources: WWF and Campfire Zimbabwe

Now South Africa has commissioned a study into whether legalising trade in rhino horn could in fact help to bring down poaching, the Department of Environmental Affairs announced recently.

"We are impartial at this stage but we are looking at all the suggestions which could help us in the fight against poachers," the department's spokesperson, Albie Modise, told the BBC.

"We are awaiting submissions and would consider this if we get authentic scientific backing that this would be effective," he said.

The idea is that legalising rhino horn trade would make South Africa directly responsible for meeting the demand for the horns - taking power out of the hands of poachers and placing it in the hands authorities who would also be sensitive to current conservation efforts.

These authorities would do market research into global markets of the trade, said Mr Modise.

The department says rhino horn stock piles could also be sold to fund further rhino conservation efforts.

Mr Modise says the suggestion first came up at a rhino summit held last year to find ways of tackling poaching in southern Africa.

Rhino horn trade is regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) and at present South Africa allows the export of horns only as hunting trophies.

The legal debate

But the consideration has drawn heavy criticism from international conversation group WWF, which says this would be a setback by decades the efforts made to stabilise the rhino population.

"We understand the need to come up with new ways of combating the rhino horn trade but we are against the notion that legalising it is the answer," said Morne du Plessis, of WWF in South Africa.

Start Quote

We must be open to the idea of engaging with the markets and finding ways which would make Africa benefit from the demand”

End Quote Charles Jonga Director of Campfire Association Zimbabwe

"How can we control legal rhino horn trade when we can't even control illegal trade. There are too many unknowns for us to even start thinking in that direction," Mr du Plessis said.

If WWF believed legalising the industry would be of benefit - it would be done research on the matter itself, he added.

Instead, WWF believes that such a move would only further endanger the lives of rhino - and possibly drive them to extinction.

There are currently 4,500 of the critically endangered black rhino (Diceros bicornis) spread across southern African nations - a shocking decline from the 1980s when 75,000 of the mammals were mostly found in Zimbabwe.

The two sub-species of white rhino (Ceratotherium simum) have a population in the region of 20,000 in South Africa alone.

But Campfire Association Zimbabwe - which advocates being able to make a living from wildlife - supports the idea of legalising the trade, saying it is time efforts looked at untested measures as opposed to the current ones which are not always effective.

"We view this as part and parcel of placing value on the rhino species. We are looking forward to a time when communities would benefit directly from living with the species," says Charles Jonga, who heads Campfire Zimbabwe.

He said his organisation, which was founded in the 1980s, had found that communities which were directly involved in conserving wildlife and were also able to earn a living from it were more keen to protect the animals from poachers.

If the trade were legal, Campfire Zimbabwe says, it would give power to countries with rhinos to set appropriate conditions to the sale - for example insisting that the horn not be used for medicinal purposes or perhaps to get clarity on what markets use the horns.

Mr Jonga said the demand needed to be met and not shunned, adding that there were ways of doing this without driving the rhino population to extinction.

"We must be open to the idea of engaging with the markets and finding ways which would make Africa benefit from the demand and indeed the communities where the rhinos are found," said Mr Jonga.

"We must also look at possibilities of breeding the rhino in our communities," he added.

'Hotspot' patrols
Protesters gather outside Parliament on National Rhino Day, September, 2011 file Some protests in South Africa have called for more action against poaching

Conservationists suspect that most of the illegally harvested rhino horns destined for south-east Asia are used for medicinal purposes.

In Vietnam many believe that ground rhino horn can be used to cure cancer - although there is no scientific proof of this - and those horns taken to the the Middle East are used to make handles for ornamental daggers.

Some measures have been put in place to curb poaching in South Africa including the deployment in recent months of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) to protect the animals from poachers by patrolling "hotspots".

Millions of dollars have been invested over the past few years on high-tech technology, upping conservations efforts and starting up range expansion programmes all in a bid for counter the effects of poaching on the rhino population.

While many countries are desperate for answers to the poaching problem - and many agree that a lot more can be done to save rhinos, critics says South Africa's idea might be too unconventional and untested to get the supports it needs.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    Clearly the banning of rhino horn has not been working. If farming these creatures and harvesting their horn, semi-domestication with a kind of animal husbandry to select for animals that are most prodigious in their horn production along with special nutrition if it would amplify production,might just be a better way, and give the locals incentive to profit from rhinos staying healthy and alive

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    The total number of rhinos poached in 2010 is 333 (compared to 17 in 2007). To date over 337 rhinos have been poached in 2011. A rhino is poached in South Africa every 20 hours.
    The BBC is invited to send a reporter to the Kempton Park Court in Gauteng on the 8th November 2011 when the next bail hearing of Vietnamese poaching kingpin Chumlong Lemtongthai takes place.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    If I were to buy a vial of Rhino horn powder I would have no idea how to verify what it was. Do people in Asia recognize the smell, the taste, color, or texture? If so, make a 'designer drug' version in the lab so that only an expert could distinguish between it and the real thing. Mass produce it, then flood the market; mold it into dagger handles if need be. Surely the profit would cover R&D.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    why not tag every rhino then the preservation guys can go round cutting off their horns so there is nothing for the poachers to cut off, this way money can be raised and the poachers would have less reason to kill the rhinos. this could be a continual source of income as the horn would grow back

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    why not sell hunting visa's for hunting poachers?if you're sick enough to kill big game then you'd be sick enought to hunt the greatest pray there is on earth.poor uneducated men.good riddance,nothing but a drain on the earth resources and a real danger to our animals

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    @1. Tom Batot Frazier

    When poachers remove the Rhino horn; they bleed to death, what you are saying is nonsense.

    There is no ethical way of purposely killing Rhino's for their horns, but you could sell all the horns that have been confiscated. Sell them to dying Chinese business men. These poachers with dart guns and chainsaws will not stop taking horns, they will sell at the price SA sell at.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    I heard that viagra is mixed in together with products made from rhino horns, tiger penis etc. Hence the unwitting users of these products are convinced that it works. We should start by CONTAMINATING the confiscated rhino horns with poisons or heavy metals and then recirculate them into the black market, accompanied by a massive worldwide publicity. Release some fake contaminated horns as well.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    If rhino horn is so popular, produce more rhinos! They can be farmed like free-range cattle; horns can be cut off without killing the beast.
    Millions of people, not just criminals and tourists, could benefit from a legitimate rhino breeding industry, and rhinos guaranteed a future. See rhinos as a resource to be multiplied & perpetuated, not just conserved and horded like a miser's treasure.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    This is not a supply and demand business only...there are myths that myths that need to be debunked.
    Flooding the markets with the horn will not dilute the price.
    Contrary, how comes we have never had minerals being flooded into the markets? And there prices have not changed...
    Banning the trade...and having more punitive measures taken against those found with the horn, maybe more sustainable..

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    I would like to see the statistics on how many rhinos are tranquillised vs shot in the head, which seems to be normal practise. As a South African this disgusts me, we have a great respect for our wildlife and I would be mortified if this became legal as it is a gateway to legal hunting. What makes people think that poachers (with no moral boundaries) would bother with legislation and licenses?

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    27.jose15 - too true, maybe we could point them in the direction of homeopathy instead?!

    Until demand for things that damage the environment, or society, or whatever aspect of life on earth, ther will always be someone willing to supply that demand for profit......

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    What is needed is an education program to convince stupid, superstitious Asians that rhino horn has no medicinal benefits. It is nothing but witchery to believe that. Maybe overdose them on wildlife documentaries if they care to watch that sort of thing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    I had this idea YEARS ago.... I feel that randomly flooding the market with 'cheap horn' from time to time could cause the poaching trade to suffer a drop in poacher profits. Who would pay $100 today for something that's available tomorrow for $10? From these legal profits you then undertake to re-educate the market about the supposed benefits. I have other ideas too... but they aint so PC.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    How about this ....go to Pfizer and get them to blitz the media (TV, radio, news papers) of the middle/far eastern countries or any that has a market for rhino horn telling that the horns are contaminated with very bad things (KK@ 23..excellent idea), and that there products (Viagra) are much more affective

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    @21 Kelly
    If we genetically modify the Rhino so it does not grow a horn, it won't be a Rhino now will it?

    Do what used to be done in Zimbabwe, impose a shoot-to-kill policy against poachers!

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    My suggestion: How about impregnating the horns with either poison or heavy metals (mercury/lead etc) that would not harm the rhino, but will harm the person who eats it. Widespread knowledge of this tainted horns sold in the in the black market will definitely deter the buyers and hence suppress demand and hopefully destroy the illegal trade.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    I don't think laws will fix the problem, I think the only it can be fixed is to some how take the profit out of the trade.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    The main problem is humans and disregarded proverb about killing the goose that lays the golden egg.

    If we could genetically modify the rhino so it does not grow a horn, it would cease to be of interest to most so would not be so much "missed" at extinction.

    Mankind's take-over of everything is at their own peril.
    Eventually in all probability will cause their own downfall.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    @8- Rhino horn isn't rare as there are around 25 000 of the animals in South Africa alone in conserved areas and it is a renewable resource. The owners of these reserves have a stockpile of horn which is estimated to last 16-20 years of sale if the trade were legalised but heavily monitored.
    @13- rhinos that have had their horn "cut off" (max 1/3 taken off) have still been poached for the base!

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    How exactly are we in debt to the middle and far east? We've sold debt but also increased trade relations.

    The Chinese government would rather point the guns of its army inwards than outwards so I'm not worried about them at all. Not that this is or ever would be a military issue.

    The fact is that we don't even act on human rights issues so there isn't a chance we'd act on animal welfare.


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