With the death rate of rhino set to exceed the birth rate in the next few years, local groups are desperately looking for a way to stem poaching.
A cross-section of experts debated the government's push to legalise the trade in rhino horn, which has been banned for the last three decades, at the University of Pretoria.
Julian Sturgeon, executive director of NGO Resource Africa, said his group was working with SANParks to test a rhino farming project. "Unless we make a decisive intervention it is bye bye rhino without a question," he said.
Their farms would each hold 64 adult rhino in rural communities, said Sturgeon. This would create 108 full-time jobs and generate R12-million a year in areas where there is no other employment. "This would be by far the most effective type of farming on the planet and the beauty is it is a win-win scenario," he said.
John Hume, the country’s largest private rhino owner, said a legal trade would save rhino from extinction. He believes the international ban three decades ago, and the local moratorium on trade in 2009, had only pushed people to the black market.
"We need to encourage everyone in the country to breed rhino and the only way to do that is legalise the trade," he said. This would make a living rhino more valuable than a dead one, because a male could yield up to 70kg of horn in its lifetime.
Dawie Roodt, an economist and head of the Efficient Group, said a live rhino can be bought for R300 000, while a horn could be sold in Vietnam for R10-million. "That is a massive incentive. Where else would you get a return like that?" he said.
Nothing else was working so another solution had to be adopted, Roodt added. By gradually supplying the market, South Africa could stimulate local economic growth and create employment. It would then be in peoples' best interests to protect the lives of rhino.
Lack of confidence
Professor Morné du Plessis, chief executive of the World Wide Fund for Nature in South Africa, said: "The current position is completely untenable." But no solution that had been put forward gave him any confidence that legalised trade could be practically pulled off. "The theory is fine. But there are some very fine predictions on very little data."
He said legalising the trade based on patchy current information was a very risky decision. "There is no practical pathway that we can confidently go for. Panic alone is not a big enough excuse to make huge decisions', he said.
Karl Ammann, a journalist who has carried out research on the market countries, said he used to be pro trade but realised this would not work. The international community, especially groups like Interpol, doubted South Africa’s ability to control its game farmers – given how they had often circumvented trade bans to sell horn.
"A big segment of the international community says you do not have things under control. How corrupt will your system be? How will you control it?" he asked.
He said the farming of tigers was a good case study. This had dramatically increased to supply demand in Asia – the appetite is so great that hundreds of lion skeletons from South Africa are smuggled over the Indian Ocean as a supplement. But the price has not gone down. "In this case the incentive for the poacher has not decreased, while you have gone and farmed a species."
In one tiger farm 700 predators were being continually bred. Buyers would then come and select one which would be electrocuted in front of them.
South Africa is planning on asking for a once-off sale of rhino horn when the Convention on the Trade in Endangered Species next meets in 2016.