South Africa’s minister for environmental affairs believes a legal, controlled trade in rhino horn is the answer to saving the country’s critically endangered rhinoceros population. This proposal is neither illogical, radical or unprecedented in my opinion. I just think it’s a bad idea.

It’s clear that desperate times require desperate measures as the death rate of rhinos in South Africa is on track to exceed the birthrate. Last year 668 rhinos were killed by poachers, while this year has already seen at least 158 deaths. Minister Edna Molewa believes that private owners “humanely” dehorning rhinos and selling their horns as a regulated product would supply the Asian demand for rhino horn products while undercutting the illegal profits of poaching.

White rhino and young, South Africa, pic: Hein Waschefort (Wikimedia Commons)

One vocal supporter of this plan is (of course) South Africa’s largest private owner of rhinos, who has 800 – around 5% of the nation’s rhino population.

He is quoted in the Guardian:

I am very pleased with the ministers’s response and feel that it is high time that the government adopted this stance. I sincerely hope that our government makes a decision to trade in rhino horn very soon and that they take such a proposal forward vigorously and intensively. Our rhinos are rapidly running out of time and the current poaching onslaught is truly devastating. We strongly feel that legalising the trade in rhino horn is the only way to go in order to save the rhino.

– John Hume, South Africa’s biggest private rhino owner

Conservation groups are naturally opposed to legalizing the rhino horn trade, which has been banned under CITES for 30 years.

The arguments against legalization are pretty straight forward:

  • First of all it would sanction the morality of “farming” a critically endangered species.
  • It would also legitimize the bogus use of rhino horn as a medicine or sexual tonic, exploiting the erroneous and dangerous beliefs of those who think it might cure their cancer or help them in the bedroom, thereby perpetuating both legal and illegal markets.
  • Furthermore, a recent study by the Environmental Investigation Agency found that China’s legal farming of tigers for their skins feeds the illegal trade in “medicines” made from tiger bones.
  • Finally, it would highlight a hypocrisy in the very bodies that are meant to preserve rhinos as a species.
  • The last two are in a way already happening through the legitimized trophy hunting of rhinoceros in Southern African game parks.

But there is research that supports Minister Molewa’s proposal or something similar. Some researchers support humanely shaving rhino horn, mostly due to the fact that both the global ban on rhino horn trade and campaigns in Asia to discredit its efficacy as a medicine have failed to stem poaching. Hard to argue with that motivation.

Another possibility is that state and international institutions simply aren’t doing their job well enough to combat illegal trade in terms of fighting corruption and curbing demand. Rather than throwing up their hands and legalizing rhino horn, perhaps a better tactic would be to strengthen information on how buying it as a medicine is a waste of money and a serious health risk. China has appealed to the sensibilities of its populace regarding conservation and cruelty, but have they taken this approach? Has Vietnam?

For more information and perspectives see the following articles: 

The Guardian – Rhino horn: Vietnam’s new status symbol heralds conservation nightmare

Japan Times – World faces rhino horn dilemma

Rhino mother and young killed by poachers, South Africa, pic: Hein Waschefort (Wikimedia Commons)