Legal rhino horn trade, not the answer for conservation

A white rhino in the bush in Kenya. In late June, South African rhino breeder John Hume announced that he would be selling a portion of his rhino horn stockpile in a legal global online auction in August 2017. It is believed the rhino farmer now owns more than 1,500 of the animals and harvests their horns. Hume provides round-the-clock protection for them.

As reported by the Guardian, South Africa has nearly 20,000 rhinos, a number that represents 80 percent of Africa’s population. In 2016, poachers killed 1,054 rhinos in South Africa.

Although Hume’s goal is conservation and to “further fund the breeding and protection of rhinos,” this sale is shortsighted and potentially dangerous for the species.

The demand for rhino horn has been so pervasive that the Javan rhino was driven to extinction in Indonesia in October of 2011. Only 60 Javan rhinos remain, in Ujung Kulon National Park in Indonesia. The Sumatran rhino is near extinction as well, with only 220 to 275 remaining in the wild.

Those like Hume argue that a legal trade would bring prices down, reducing the incentive to poach these animals, bring jobs to the area and ultimately use profits to protect rhinos. Supporters state that legal horn could be traceable through a transponder and a recorded DNA signature, although it is unclear if this will be implemented.

International trade in rhino horn was banned in 1977 under CITES. In South Africa, domestic trade was banned in 2009, but poaching has only increased. Unfortunately, the domestic ban has since been lifted, allowing Hume to conduct the auction.

Hume argues that meeting the demand for rhino horn is the only way to deter poaching and save the species. With a possible stockpile of six tonnes, Hume says he plans on using the money from the auction of half a tonne of his stockpile to protect his rhinos, on which he spends more than $170,000 a month on security.

The issue with Hume’s decision to auction off rhino horn is that the entrance of a horn stockpile into the market legitimizes rhino horn as an acceptable commodity. Although the sale of the horn is only legal within South Africa, the auction is already being advertised to Chinese and Vietnamese markets – the biggest markets for illegal rhino horn.

When it comes to this rhino horn auction, trimming horns and lifting trade bans would simultaneously lift the stigma of poaching and, in fact, stimulate and legitimize demand. There is no evidence that a legal trade could be regulated to prevent the laundering of poached “blood horns” into a legal market. Attempts to allow legal ivory sales in the hopes of reducing elephant poaching have been deadly failures.

There is no reason to believe that legal rhino horn sales would reduce rhino poaching either. In addition, the existence of parallel legal and illegal markets makes the job of customs agents and wildlife law enforcement officers more difficult and confuses consumers.

“There is no evidence to prove stockpile sales have any positive impact in preventing poaching,” said Neil Greenwood, IFAW Southern Africa region head of Programme and Operations. “In fact to the contrary they are fueled by economic greed and place a greater burden on enforcement and conservation agencies who are already battling to contain the poaching war against rhino in South Africa.”

Subjecting rhinos unnecessarily to the dangers of an anesthetic, and physically distorting their magnificent and unique profiles by dehorning them in a bid to deter poachers is short sighted and frankly lazy.

Rhinos use their horns to defend their territories, protect their calves from other rhinos and predators, and for foraging: digging for water and breaking branches. This isn’t just a matter of poaching, it is also a matter of quality of life for animals like Hume’s.

--JO

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