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Trade of Rhino Horns: Can it Save the Species?

By Libby Leyden-Sussler

Their eyes glimmer in the sweltering sun. Heads hung low, they stumble across the barren grassland timid with hesitation. A clean cut has left a jarring stub on the snout of each of their long faces. These majestic black rhinos from South Africa, Bonnie and Clyde, are two of the few lucky survivors from what has now become another global issue—poaching.

A solution to the crisis may be what some conservationists have been heavily resisting: legalizing the trade on rhino horn. While controversial, it may be what ends up saving the species that has been hovering on the brink of extinction.

Poachers are after the rhino horn, viewed by many as the animal’s symbol of strength, to meet increasing demand from Asian markets. The demand is fueled by a belief that it holds medicinal significance, such as curing cancer and warding off headaches. Major studies prove otherwise. In fact, rhino horn is essentially comprised of the same material found in human hair and nails—keratin.

Unless the international community takes a stand on poaching, the rhino population will continue to decline at an alarming rate. In 2007, South Africa only had 13 rhinos poached, but by the end of 2013 that number had leapt to 1,000—a 95 percent increase in under six years. If the trend continues, the rhino species will be extinct by as early as 2026.

Since 1976, international trade of all rhino products has been banned under the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Undercover surveys by organizations such as TRAFFIC reveal that rhino horn prices are now fetching the equivalent to their weight in gold. A single rhino horn is now worth around $65,000 per kg on the black market, up from $4,700 in 1993. This has made the business of poaching rhinos a lucrative endeavor, attracting terrorist groups from across globe as it supplies a heavy demand from China and Vietnam—currently the two largest nations with a demand for rhino horn.

“The global ban on rhinoceros products has clearly failed, and legal controls could dissuade the lethal black market poaching that endangers the animals,” says Duan Biggs, a research fellow at the Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions at the University of Queensland. “As committed environmentalists, we don’t like the idea of a legal trade any more than the average member of the concerned public. But we can see that something radically different needs to be done to conserve Africa’s rhino.”

Rhinos can grow about 0.9 kg of horn each year, and the risks to the animal from today’s best-practice horn harvesting techniques are minimal. Biggs explains that each legal horn could carry a traceable transponder and have a recorded DNA signature, which would allow tracking of the precious cargo from South Africa to Vietnam and China.

“There is always going to be poaching. But legalization of the trade will potentially be what aids relief to the crisis,” says Arno Smit, head game reserve manager at Botlierskop in South Africa’s Garden route. “Ultimately someone needs to make a decision because what has been in place thus far is not working. The ban is clearly not working.” 

“As the ban remains in place currently, it artificially restricts supply in the face of this demand growth, which pushed up the price for horn and the incentives for poachers,” explains Biggs. Horn sold through a central selling organization would attract buyers because it would be legal, cheaper than on the black market, and safer and easier to obtain. There was an opportunity to start serious discussions about establishing a legal trade at the 16th CITES Conference of the Parties (COP-16) in Bangkok in March 2013, but no formal proposal was presented.

Check out the following interactive presentation for more information on the rhino poaching crisis and how a legalized trade can help.

A legal trade will be the most cost-effective approach to rhino conservation in the long term. The current approach is a massive drain on global governments’ expenses, and has thus far proven to be unsustainable and unsuccessful. It focuses on financing heavy enforcement, technology such as tracking devices, and ranger training programs.

“I see alarming parallels with the failed war on drugs,” says Michael’t Sas-Rolfes, conservation economist at the Property and Environment Research Center. “I suspect that things may need to get a lot worse before others become convinced, by which time we may have lost some of the more vulnerable rhino species…those remaining are limited in number and relatively close to domestication. This is what happened with the American bison.”

A larger question is whether the international community has the responsibility to protect and save African rhinos, in the same way it has the responsibility to stand up against other global injustices like human trafficking and terrorism. International NGOs, such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), seem to take ownership of the world’s rhinos, yet there is no way they could afford to securely protect all 28,000 of them. Yet today this source of funding is the only other option for protecting the animal, along with an attempt to educate and encourage “demand reduction” in consumer countries. But all of these efforts will need significant funding. While NGOs can contribute something, international governments (particularly ones in southern Africa) that being asked to foot much of the bill simply don’t have the resources or would prefer to direct them elsewhere, such as healthcare and dealing with the high poverty levels.

The largest fear associated with lifting the ban is the uncertainty of whether or not a legal trade will increase the demand for the product. “We don’t know to what extent the demand might increase under legalization, but there are ways in which we could manage that,” says Sas-Rolfes. “If we did move to legal supply from farming we can fairly rapidly and dramatically increase the supply of the horn to the market. (his model), which would most likely bring down prices, even if the amounts consumed increased from the current levels. If prices didn’t drop then the selling rhino owners would make windfall profits that they could reinvest into further protection.”

There is no doubt from either side, those for lifting the trade ban and those for launching an expansive anti-poaching campaign, that poaching has reached critical numbers and shows no sign of stopping. This December, the South African government took a first step by beginning to undertake a comprehensive feasibility study, and it could make a formal proposal to legalize the trade in 2016. Whatever is ultimately decided, drastic action should be taken so Africa’s rhinos, such as Bonnie and Clyde, can survive and continue contributing to the larger global eco-system.

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Libby Leyden-Sussler is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

  [Photo courtesy of Matt Dobson/Africa Media]

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