07 Jun Legalisation of the rhino-horn trade
In September this year, CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) will hold their 67th meeting in Johannesburg. On the agenda is the long-awaited discussion on the international trade in rhino-horn. A ban has been in place for this trade since 1977 but with the increasing poaching crisis, calls have been made to reverse the ban and allow the trade once again.
Last week, the South African government shocked the conservation world by announcing that they will not be proposing an end to the ban on international rhino-horn trade. This is somewhat surprising after they recently legalised the domestic trade of horn within South Africa just over a month ago.
Some believe that reversing the ban is the only chance left to save this iconic species of the savannah; to give the horn a value with trade and hence the animal a value to be kept alive. After all…..the current laws surrounding rhino horn are doing nothing to stop the slaughter of these animals daily. Since the ban has been in place, hundreds and thousands of rhinos have been poached. When is it time to admit that the current system is not working? Is it time to try something new? to think outside the box, to farm these animals and their asset and give them a value and a reason to be alive? Current concerns are that live rhinos are losing value, worth a few hundred thousand rand at most; a dead one however, is now worth up to 8 million rand.
South Africa holds the largest population of white rhino in the world, 33% of rhinos in South Africa belong to private reserves. Many of these private owners are giving up on keeping rhinos as they are simply becoming to risky and costly to protect. 70 of 300 private rhino owners have disinvested in their rhinos in just the past year removing hundreds of hectares of habitat availability for rhino. In spite of the trade ban, rhinos have become extinct from 20 African countries in the last 25 years.
The South African government states that this recent decision endorses their current integrated strategic management approach, a notion supported by some including the WWF. Colman O’Criodain, WWF Wildlife Trade Analyst said in a statement “Reopening the legal trade in rhino horn under current conditions would have been counterproductive and increased the risk of even more rhinos being poached”.
The African Wildlife Foundation also support the South African government decision stating that although the rhinos are in desperate plight, this is not the time to be testing out new ideas, trades and theories of how to save them.
The legalisation of a commodity from an endangered species is an extremely complex business; after all, we can learn our lessons here from the ivory trade. Ivory has been legal to trade for the past 20 years yet elephant poaching rates are currently higher than ever and the illegal trade still flourishes. Is this not a lesson we should learn from? A legalised trade must be monitored and enforced. This is a costly and often unsuccessful exercise which can lead to the enrichment of illegal traders and alienate rural communities living adjacent to national parks. Those who support legalisation of the trade suggest that a well controlled, legal trade would create a sustainable platform for the rhino. Others are concerned that South Africa does not have the ability to enforce a controlled, legal trade.
The most recent development surrounding this controversial decision has some from the Kingdom of Swaziland. This week they have made a proposal to CITES that a controlled trade should be allowed enabling horn accrued from natural deaths, harvesting and poached rhinos (where the poachers did not acquire the horn) to be traded. The kingdom’s proposal to reverse the ban in trade requires a 66% majority vote to be approved. CITES will only meet again in another 3 years, does the rhino have long enough to wait for another meeting before changes are made?
There is no doubt that the eyes of the conservation world will be on Johannesburg in September later this year. This is a complex and heart wrenching topic, one that not even the top conservation authorities can agree on how to move forward.
This is a photo of ‘Ondli’ – I knew her and followed her and her calf for 6 years before she was the first (of many) rhino to be poached at Askari.
Rhino owner’s association