JOHANNESBURG — Some South African conservationists and wildlife-reserve owners are advocating legalization of the rhino horn trade, which is currently banned by international treaty. The proposed plan would entail selling horns only from rhinos that died of natural causes and that use profits to fund anti-poaching efforts.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, a record 448 rhinos were poached in 2011, and more than half of that number have already been killed illegally so far this year.
Pelham Jones, chairman of South Africa’s Private Rhino Owners Association, says the South African government does not have adequate resources to stop poachers from killing the endangered species for its horns.
“We can double, we can triple our security measures, [but] we cannot sustain the level of protection of our rhino, especially not when one looks at the value that rhino horns are being sold for in the Far East," said Jones, referring to some traditional Asian medical philosophies that put a premium on rhino horns.
The best way to save the rhino, his group says, is to lift the ban on the rhino horn trade.
“We are not talking of going out and killing rhinos for their horns — South Africa has over 25 tons of horns in stockpiles," he said. "These are horns from animals that died of natural causes, horns that broke off during relocation."
DNA testing, he explains, could be used to ascertain whether a given horn was poached or legally acquired. Legalizing the trade would not only reduce market value (and thus the incentive to poach), but taxes and fees levied from legal transactions could be used to fund wildlife security and conservation measures.
Some advocates skeptical
While South African government officials have commissioned a study on legalizing the rhino trade, Jo Shaw of the wildlife trade-monitoring organization TRAFFIC remains skeptical.
“We need to know exactly how horn is going to be sold. We need to know who it is going to be sold to," she said. "We need to be clear on the mechanisms that will be put into place to stop horns from illegally killed rhinos entering the legal trade.”
Despite the increase in rhino poaching, she adds, the ban is working in the sense that the worldwide rhino population remains steady at about 20,000 animals. And while demand for rhino horns is currently rising in China, Vietnam and Thailand, other Asian countries have been successfully curbing the illegal trade.
“We do know that, in the past, markets for rhino horns have grown and then been reduced elsewhere," said Shaw. "So, historically, Japan, Taiwan, [and] Korea were all major users of rhino horn. Those countries all have domestic bans in place and the demand is no longer coming from those regions.”
If legalizing the rhino trade to save the rhinos may sound too good to be true, she says, it most likely is.