Rhino horn – Is legal trade the only way to save the species? The debate, the conspiracy, the facts and the sorrows

Legal trade of rhino horn may be a substantial method to reduce poaching efforts after poachers have recently targeted a zoo and a number of rhino orphanages.

This horrific story hit the headlines on Tuesday the 8th of March: Captive rhino Vince in Paris zoo shot in the head three times and his horn brutally removed by chainsaw from his dead face. More recently in just 24 hours from the 9th to the 10th of March 13 rhino where poached in South Africa. This was just days after the South African Department of Environmental affairs released the new statistics on poaching in South Africa, which dropped by 10.3% from the year before.

Some of you may have seen the recent news that Thula Thula rhino orphanage was targeted by poachers who killed one 18 month old rhino for its horn and injured another so much that it had to be put to sleep the following morning, both where due to be released into a larger boma to get them ready to be re-released into the wild. This devastated me, and left me wondering is this a once off event or is this war for horn so bad that poachers have found a new way to capitalise on rhino.

Weeks before this, another young orphaned hand-raised rhino from a private farm was killed for its horn with a second survivor mutilated who is now being cared for by ‘Saving the Species’. These stories are occurring daily, almost to a point that I am now completely numb to them and will scroll past them in a news feed like I would do a funny cat video.

From 2009 to 2016, 6,019 rhinos in South Africa have been poached for their horn, that’s one every eight hours. You, like me should be shocked that such a thing could happen, and it does every day in Southern Africa to the amazing and awe inspiring white and black rhino.

International trade in rhino horn has been illegal since 1977 and initially populations showed signs of increasing, however since 2009 there has been an increase in poaching of rhino for their horns, resulting in the current population of roughly just 20,000 white rhino and roughly 4,500 black rhino.

In 2014, 1,215 rhino were killed for their horn in South Africa. This was reduced to 1,175 in 2015. After a 3-month wait, the DEA (Department of Environmental Affairs) of South Africa have finally published the 2016 poaching numbers. A total of 1054 rhinos were poached in South Africa last year, which is a decline of 121 rhino.

Outraged South African Citizens Against Rhino Poaching (OSCAP) produced their own independent statistics from verified sources, news paper articles and social media outlets, suggesting the number of poached rhino is sill staggeringly high and calculated at least 1,105 were killed in 2016, not far off the DEA statistics. It is important to remember that not all poached rhino are included in the DEA statistics, rhino which survive poaching attacks are not included, orphan numbers are also not included, but this year were mentioned in a separate statement by the South African DEA .

Kruger national park where around 65% of rhino are poached, released their figures for 2016 with 622 rhino poached, this is a reduction of 204 rhino from 2015. Increased security, tougher sentencing of poachers, (arrests are on the rise this year, however convictions are down) and improved intelligence are reducing the poaching there. However increase of security in Kruger has resulted in a shifting focus of poaching in other places. KwaZulu-Natal lost at least 159 rhino in 2016 compared to only 104 during the same period in 2015. Worrying though its not all about South Africa, during 2015 according to Save the Rhino, Namibia lost 80 rhino to poaching up from 25 rhino the year before and Zimbabwe reported at least 50 rhino poached in 2015, double than the previous year (2016 statistics are currently not available).

Rhino horn is in demand. Poached rhino horn can now fetch as much as $65,000 per KG, by weight more valuable than gold or cocaine. And high demand in Vietnam and china has fuelled an epidemic and subsequent downward spiral of not just African rhino populations but Java, Indian and Sumatran rhino.

Solutions to the epidemic have been put forward such as demand-reduction programmes in countries like China and Vietnam. These have had some impact, but unfortunately this obvious solution to the problem is not working fast enough. Another solution is to increase protection on the ground, which can be effective in small reserves and has shown slight success in the Kruger. Protection, which is more increasingly becoming small military operations, is expensive and unfortunately smaller reserves cannot pay these sky-high rates. Private owners in South Africa, who own a quarter of all rhino spend up to 60% of their income on security and simply cannot afford these rates for extra protection. There have also been some interesting and news popular solutions, such as putting live cameras in horns and adding colouring or poisoning into the horn itself, even flying rhino to start new populations in Australia, but none of these are long term or sustainable countrywide. 

At a debate I attended in London in August 2016 with rhino breeder John Hume and Will Travers of Born Free, Will was opposed to any legal trade, people opposed to trade often are idealistically against using wildlife for anything other than viewing in the wild. Others are concerned that trade focused in SA would secure rhino there but shift poaching to other range state and threaten Asian species. Hume countered in favour of legal trade of rhino horn collecting horns of natural mortalities and de-horning of rhino.

People see the word de-horning and are instantly put off, having seen and participated in a large scale de-horning, it is a quick and painless procedure done by a vet, and often can take as little as ten minutes with rhinos up and walking within 15. Rhinos can be de-horned every 18 months, and many reserves (two that I have personally visited, one is against trade) de-horn their rhino for protective reasons, as sadly a de-horned rhino may deter poachers, as there would be a smaller pay out.  All horns collected either by national parks or private owners are kept under tight security and cannot be sold or traded. If regulated trade was legal, this horn could be sold slowly to meet the demand, to bring in well-needed funds for rhino conservation and allow for more sophisticated anti-poaching techniques, and funds for rural development to make rhinos an asset who’s poverty is often used to drive local men into poaching.

During September 2016 at CITES (Convention on Trade in Endangered Species), Swaziland requested for a limited legal trade in natural mortality horn from its small population of rhino. CITES voted down this request, and so pro-trade lobbyists have a lot of work on their hands to try and get a CITES agreement on trade in horn.

On the 8th of Feburary 2017 however, after previous court and appeal decisions lifting the moratorium on domestic trade in horn, the South African Minister of the Department of Environmental affairs and tourism, Edna Molewa, published draft regulations for domestic trade in legally acquired rhino horn. This would also allow the export for “personal” rather than commercial purposes of two rhino horns by a person holding the necessary South African export and import permits from the country to which they would go. It remains to be seen if this will be fully adopted and how it would effect the poaching crisis and how CITES will react. It is important to note that global rhino horn trade is banned under a U.N convention and so global trade in rhino horn will not be available.

Many people including rhino owners and other conservationist are now even more sympathetic to trailing the idea of legal trade. We must try to understand the desire of many people for an ‘ultra-ethical’ stance on trade in wildlife products, but there is an equally strong and ethical argument that regulated trade could reduce poaching. However there is no silver bullet, one solution will not stop it all, many solutions must be combined together so the poaching could be reduced to a level where rhino populations could increase and funds benefiting the rhino and the local people. As Keith Somerville has stated recently in a relevant article “The argument by anti-trade that a legalised trade would encourage demand is a strong one, but only if one ignores that there is already considerable demand and rhino numbers are falling fast and consistently. Demand reduction is not working, so a legal trade won’t worsen the situation, it might just reduce poaching sufficiently so that numbers recover rather than keep falling”.

Hopefully it is not to late, everyone I have met in South Africa love and are proud of their species. One rhino every eight hours is poached in South Africa and whatever the solution we must keep fighting! Orphans who have already lost their mothers to poaching should not have to face the same fate. We cannot let money and greed be their undoing. Having heard the stories, seen the tears and felt the breath of a rhino on my skin, I know this species is worth saving whatever the cost, I know poaching may never end completely but misplaced ultra-ethical views will not save the rhino, regulated sustainable trade options could.

Rachael Leeman
About Rachael Leeman 1 Article
After studying a BSc in Zoology, I went on to volunteer in South Africa; here I developed my love for African Mammals including the lion, leopard and wild dog. Returning I went on to study a MSc in Endangered species recovery looking to go on to work with African big cats and dogs but I returned to South Africa for research in calculating species density with camera traps. While here my amazing respect for rhinos was born, and I’m returning there to work more closely with volunteers to protect this amazing species. I hope in the future to go on to work in research and study a PhD in Endangered species recovery. But apart from that I love wildlife photography and you can find me on Instagram and Linkedin.
Contact: Website

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