/ 29 March 2019

On the horns of a dilemma

Trade route: The rhino horn trade has been illegal since 1977
Trade route: The rhino horn trade has been illegal since 1977, but poachers have killed thousands of these animals in South Africa since 2008. (Michel & Christine Denis-Huot)

Legalising the rhino horn trade could inject R60-billion into the South African fiscus, but allowing the trade could backfire at the expense of rhinos.

Two months before a critical international wildlife conference, the conservation community is still grappling with how to fund efforts to save the animals. As costs escalate, South African rhino owners insist that the only way to protect them is to allow some form of legal trade in horns.

The international trade has been illegal since 1977 so criminal syndicates are the only suppliers to the market.

Some countries, such as eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) and Namibia, also believe that the expensive business of conserving rhinos could be funded by selling their horns.

Jo Shaw, the World Wide Fund for Nature South Africa (WWF-SA) rhino programme manager, admits there is an argument to be made for using the proceeds from rhino horn sales to fund conservation but she cautions against this.

“Current conditions are not conducive to regulating a legal trade effectively and legalising trade in rhino horn could pave the way for more rhinos being poached.”

On the other hand, Pelham Jones, the chairperson of the Private Rhino Owners’ Association, believes the trade in rhino horn will make the animal the most protected and valuable animal in Africa.

Studies by two independent economists show that R60-billion could flow into the South African economy and provide funding for conservation and rural poverty alleviation, he says. The studies, which are not available for public release, were presented to the environmental affairs department and minister.

“It is important to note that about two-thirds of these funds will be funnelled to the government, as they own two-thirds of the national stockpile,” Jones says. “This, plus the taxes from private sales, mean that some 75% would go into the fiscus.”

Since 2008, rhino poaching in South Africa has spiralled out of control, with more than 8 000 casualties, and more than 1 300 animals poached on private reserves. Rhino numbers are officially in decline, even though poaching figures were down last year.

Shaw agrees that joining hands with the private sector is crucial to protect rhinos. Private reserves own 50% of the national white rhino population and 25% of the black, according to the association, and owners are increasingly campaigning to be allowed to trade.

National parks and private landowners now spend millions of rands on security every month to protect the animals, and the association calculates that the annual cost of maintaining rhino security on private, provincial and national reserves amounts to R2-billion a year.

“From 2014 to end 2017, the value of living rhinos has declined by 67%, because of the escalating costs,” Jones says.

He says several provincial reserves and more than 100 private reserves no longer have rhinos because of poaching losses and the high security costs, which amount to R112 500 an animal a year. By having to allocate so much money to rhino protection, they have become unpopular for private reserves to invest in, he says.

In July last year, prolific rhino breeder John Hume said he could no longer fund the “private army” necessary to protect his North West rhino farm, which has more than 1 000 animals.

“The rhino will be left to the mercy of poachers, which will result in an inevitable blood bath,” he said in an attempt to secure crowdfunding for his rhinos.

The question the owners are asking is: Who will pay the pipers, if they are to look after South Africa’s rhinos?

“In the current domestic and international economic environment, I do not see any billion-dollar donor funding, or the government’s willingness to cover these costs,” Jones says.

An African call for trade

Namibia, eSwatini and some other African nations also believe that selling off some of their stockpiles would raise much-needed funds. The two countries have handed in proposals to allow the trading of horns to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), which meets in May in Sri Lanka. This is the only organisation that can reinstate trade.

In 2016 in Johannesburg, eSwatini made the same proposal, which was turned down, so the chances are slim that it will receive the requisite two-thirds of Cites members voting to pass it. Countries such as Kenya strongly oppose legalising the trade.

Both eSwatini and Namibia want to move white rhinos from Appendix I to Appendix II, which, under the convention, would allow international trade in rhinos and their products, including horn and its derivatives, as country representatives believe this would provide much-needed legal revenue for rhino conservation.

Species listed in Appendix I are threatened with extinction, and the listing prevents all commercial international trade in these animals. Appendix II species are not necessarily threatened with extinction and can be traded under special permit conditions.

Namibia wants the international trade in live animals to be allowed, as well as for trophy hunting.

eSwatini’s proposal argues that its three game parks are under immense financial strain to conserve its rhinos, especially with the ballooning costs of security.“The Cites ban on trade in rhino horn has been in force for 42 years and it is clearly not working — rhino losses from illegal hunters are driving rhinos towards extinction,” eSwatini argues in the proposal.

The tiny kingdom says whatever income the legal trade attracts would be unavailable to the illegal trade and that this would reduce illicit profits and improve protection.

But supporting a legal trade is a political hot potato and South Africa has shied away from the controversy.

Shonisani Munzhedzi, the deputy director general of biodiversity and conservation at the department of environmental affairs, said in Parliament that, although there are a number of proposals that affect South Africa, the department had opted not to put forward a proposal in May 2019 to trade in horns. South Africa has also made no pronouncement on whether it would support or oppose the two proposals.


South Africa’s own rhino horn stockpile is estimated to be slightly less than 30 tonnes, but there is a lot of secrecy about it, especially among private rhino owners. Owners pre-emptively dehorning their rhinos and natural rhino deaths have led to a considerable stockpile, which could become the basis of a mooted futures market, where investors could hedge against the future legalisation of the trade.

The stockpiles would be worth millions if the trade is legalised. But Jones is adamant that it is a total misrepresentation made by anti-trade nongovernmental organisations that the privately owned reserves want the trade to be legalised just to make money.

“We are already over R1.47-billion out of pocket, ignoring the original investment costs, land use and management costs; and, secondly, the private reserves hold the smallest volume of the horn stockpiles after provincial and national parks.”

Instead, he says: “If we supply horn at below the current illegal trade [rate] of $23 000 for a raw horn, we can collapse the illegal trade and turn the current illegal market into a regulated and legal trade environment where revenue comes back to conservation and not into the hands of the criminals.”

Strong ‘no trade’ lobbyists

Kenya, which regularly makes a pyre out of their stockpiles, and some European countries are certain to be some of the main opposers of legalised trading.

eSwatini has even criticised Kenya for destroying rhino horn when African conservation agencies are cash-strapped.

Shaw says there are proponents for destroying horn “but I think we need to understand a lot more about what message that sends to the market in terms of reducing the supply of an illegal, high-value resource”.

Opponents of legal horn trading worry that it would simply stimulate the black market trade that exists in Asia, where rhino horn sells for a higher price than gold or cocaine.

Shaw argues that, because rhinos are endangered, there is not enough horn available to feed the enormous Asian market.

“I don’t think anyone in recent years believes that trading is about meeting demand. The numbers do not add up at all.”

Critics also argue that legalisation could lead to a situation where the criminal market flourishes alongside the legal one, as is the case with abalone.