Stop, South Africa! Legalizing horn trade will fuel more rhino poaching

Resorting to legalization of rhino horn trade as a way to reduce poaching of rhinos is a theoretic assumption which fails to take market dynamics and consumer preferences into consideration.

UPDATE: On April 21, a South African cabinet minister announced that the nation would not pursue a bid to have the global ban on rhinio horn lifted.


As expected, South Africa’s recently released 2016 National Treasury Report for Environment Affairs clearly states: “South Africa will submit its rhino horn trade proposal at CITES CoP17.”

I am dismayed that in seeking CITES approval to legalize rhino horn trade, the government has neglected to learn from previous trade legalization schemes of endangered species.

The treasury document states that “the proposal aims to reduce rhino poaching, as it promotes the legal selling of rhino horn.”

This was exactly the same argument applied to elephant ivory which resulted in CITES approval of repeated ivory sales to Japan and China in the past twenty years.

And what disastrous consequences those trade decisions have created for elephants!

The 2008 ivory sale to China and Japan unleashed a torrent of market demand from Asia for the “white gold.” Ivory prices skyrocketed, fueling increased elephant poaching and ivory trafficking. 

The escalating Asian demand for ivory prompted the killing of more than 100,000 elephants in the three years from 2010 to 2012.  The latest CITES data shows the elephant poaching rate, though unchanged from 2014, is still unacceptably high overall, and threatening the survival of elephants.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the number of African rhinos killed by poachers has increased in the past six years in a row, with at least 1,338 killed across Africa in 2015.

Resorting to legalization of rhino horn trade as a way to reduce poaching of rhinos is a theoretic assumption which fails to take market dynamics and consumer preferences into consideration.

A recent survey of five cities in China on the demand drivers for rhino horn reveals the demand for rhino horn is differentiated into two markets, as medicine and luxury goods. The main reason for buying horn as a luxury good is to “give as a gift” because it is “unique.”

The survey report titled “Rhino Rage: What is driving illegal consumer demand for rhino horn” by NRDC and Horizon Key substantiates IFAW’s market monitoring data in China showing that wealth is increasingly overtaking health as the main driver of the demand for many endangered species. Products such as rhino horn and tiger bone that were historically used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) have now been increasingly promoted as collectibles, gifts, investment assets and corruption currency.

According to China’s Auction Association, mainland auction markets had seen sales and prices for rhino horn carvings doubling year on year. By 2011, 2,750 pieces of rhino horn carvings were sold on mainland China’s auction market, generating total sales volume of US$179 million, which is a 111 percent increase from just a year ago.  The average price for a rhino horn carving was sold for US$117,582.

The high prices for rhino horns in Asia even attracted the attention of criminal gangs which targeted museums and galleries in Europe and successfully pulled off a series of rhino horn thefts.

When the demand for parts and products of endangered wildlife species is driven by consumers who seek them as status symbols and for investment, price is no object. The higher the price, the more prestigious it is to possess and show status. The closer the species is to extinction, the higher its “investment” value. This dangerous behavior is reflected in the NRDC survey: Consumers who are willing to buy rhino horn as luxury products are not affected by the price of horn nor the population status of rhinos. In fact, when the price of rhino horn is higher than RMB2.5 million (US$384,360), neither an increase in price nor a twenty-fold decrease in rhino populations could deter a consumer’s willingness to buy rhino horn.

The only way to stop wealth driven investors who are banking on extinction is to strengthen laws and policies making the trade in endangered species illegal in ALL circumstances. 

Clear laws banning wildlife trade combined with vigorous enforcement and meaningful penalties can stigmatize consumption and reduce demand.

A case in point, acting on IFAW tip about the auction sales of tiger bone, rhino horn and elephant ivory, Chinese authorities banned all auctions of these endangered species in 2012. As I wrote in this blog, the auction ban resulted in a 40 percent reduction of auction volume in mainland China. Research further shows that the 90 percent reduction in ivory auctions positively correlated with the reduction in elephant poaching

The complex nature of the rhino horn demand drivers in Asia calls for policy decisions to err on the side of caution. Legalizing rhino horn trade would feed two distinctly different markets, remove the stigma associated with consumption of endangered species, stimulate the insatiable demand for rhino horn, and fuel further rhino poaching.

I hope South Africa recognizes that there is no appetite from the international community to see rhino populations suffer the same fate as elephants.

It would be wise for South Africa to give up its proposal to legalize rhino horn trade at the CITES CoP in Johannesburg…

…before this beautiful country suffers the unnecessary embarrassment on its own turf.


Visit IFAW's Fighting Wildlife Trafficking page for more information about rhinos and other species in peril.

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