South Africa has lifted the ban on trading rhino horn in a move that has divided conservationists. This now means it is legal to buy and sell rhino horns in South Africa.
Advocates of this scheme argue that if private reserves were to de-horn rhinos without killing them, then they would be financially better off since the horn will grow back and it can then be removed again which, over a rhino’s lifetime, will mean it is worth more alive than dead. In total the nation stands to make almost £500 million from legalised rhino trade according to financial studies.
In theory this is true but it easy to see this plan going wrong. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) has not lifted the ban on international trade and so the export of rhino horn or powder is still illegal. Given that the demand for rhino horn comes from China and Vietnam it is unclear who will buy the rhino horn. Dr Daniel Stiles, a consultant on the illegal wildlife trade for the UN addressed this shortly after the announcement saying “Who will buy it if export is illegal? Smugglers, I guess,”.
The question is, will it be financially viable for smugglers to buy the horn and smuggle it or will it be cheaper to poach? No one can say currently as the ban has only just been lifted but currently rhino horn sells for $60,000 per kilogram. It seems a strange move to cater almost exclusively to the smugglers but South Africa is in a difficult position. Poaching is rife and although the army does patrol many national parks looking for poachers the areas are so vast that some poachers still get through. It is impossible to control every inch of their boundaries. South Africa is also experiencing a lot of violence and civil unrest currently and so it is not an easy place to get people focused on saving the rhino. Even the government is split as the Environment Ministry tried to overturn the ruling and failed, whereas the government as a whole are aiming to lift the ban on worldwide rhino horn trade. According to Dr Stiles, any move to overturn the four-decade old international ban was highly unlikely to succeed. “Unfortunately the animal rights people don’t accept sustainable utilisation,” he said. He’s probably right as many animal rights activists are extremely moral and don’t approve of moves such as this. In their defence however it is possible that legalisation will essentially mean “farmed” rhinos which would not be a good thing either.
The NGO “Save the Rhino Foundation” has it has not yet reached a conclusion on the move and are unsure if they approve or not. The WWF conversely has come out strongly against lifting of the ban “Lifting the domestic moratorium can only encourage poaching and illegal activity, especially as it is likely to be misconstrued as a lifting of the current international trade ban,” said Dr Jo Shaw, rhino programme manager for WWF South Africa.
The only real solution to the problem is to get China and Vietnam to realise that rhino horn is entirely useless as a medication. However, as with most of the illegal trade in animal products, these nations are either maintaining that the products do work or are simply too corrupt to deal with the problem.
Advocates of the new ruling argue that the £500 million that South Africa stands to make would be enough to stem the tide of poaching in the country if the money went to conservation efforts, though there is no reason to think that it will. Many point to the Vicuña in Chile as an example of when legalised trade was effective.
Previously poached for its fur, the trade in Vicuña was legalised in 1997 and appeared to result in a decline in poaching. Legal trade proponents argue that doing the same with rhinos would work. However, Vicuña poaching only decreased briefly and has led to more poaching in the long run as new trade markets opened up and so it is not the success story that many think it is. The scientist whose work resulted in the legal trade of Vicuña fur is against legalising the rhino horn for fear of the same situation occurring.
Rhinos bring in a lot of money from eco-tourism and so it is possible that increasing tourism would bring significant benefits. However South Africa is not a particularly safe country to travel to and the negative press is damaging to tourism. The opening of a new airstrip within the Kruger appears to be an attempt to coax more people into visiting but tourists are not yet a big enough force to save the rhino.
Some are calling for a temporary lift on the international trade ban to allow South Africa to gain enough money to from the sale of rhino products to protect the rhinos and somehow attempt to educate the Chinese and Vietnamese about how it useless as a medication. However the trade in rhino horn, though rife, is technically illegal in China and Vietnam so they would also have to lift their ban on rhino horn which they have made no indication of doing. It is unlikely any international ban will be lifted as selling rhino horns in order to fund a campaign to save the rhino is not a move that would prove popular with many conservation groups.
Conversely there is a bold suggestion that airlifting rhinos into Botswana may save the species. Botswana are significantly more organised and prepared to protect their animals than South Africa. Currently they have the lowest poaching rates in Africa, partly due to dense forests but also due to their “shoot to kill” policy for poachers and the fact that they are well trained and well armed. Possibly the biggest factor in their favour is low corruption, not something that can be said of South Africa, nor China or Vietnam. As they say in Africa “One rhino horn takes at least one corrupt official.”
The issue of saving the rhino is very complicated but, to generalise, it really comes down to lawbreaking and corruption due to social problems. Whether the legal trade in rhino horn will help or makes things worse is difficult to predict but whilst saving the rhinos directly is a good thing, it will only be a temporary measure unless we stop the demand for rhino products.