Why South Africa should not legalize rhino horn

Seized rhino horn at the Hong Kong Customs and Excise headquarters in Hong Kong, China, 08 August 2013. The illegal trade is driving many iconic African animal species to extinction, as well as funding armed terrorist groups in the horn of Africa. c. IFAW/Alex Hofford

All arguments in support of regulated trade in rhino horn are theoretical at best, with highly questionable predictions based on very little data. In the wake of the Outraged South African Citizens Against Poaching International Conference to Assess the Risk of Rhino Horn Trade conference earlier this week, it is obvious that the South African government’s lobbying to gain support for legalised trade presents a serious dilemma for Pretoria.

While some argue that the time is now to apply an adaptive management approach, I would argue that it is far too risky an experiment to even consider whispering about in government corridors, let alone actively lobbying for support.

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What’s more, the potential risk of failure could see the South African government having a direct hand in undoing all the positive rhino conservation efforts of the past. It is a serious credibility issue for the country.

The other major ethical issue: the notion of farming rhinos for trade and then calling it conservation.  While the country has a history of wildlife ranching, given that private individuals have the right to not only own land, but wildlife too, there is a fine line between conserving wild animals on private land and farming wild animals for profit.

The rhino debate is thus pushing the government into a corner where the only way out, really, is to be transparent in its intentions. If you want to farm rhinos for profit, call it for what it is, where a relative handful of private interests are permitted to control as much as possible in order to maximise their personal profit. However, such transparency could present an enormous credibility/public image challenge, not only internationally but here at home too.

Rhino poaching has reached a tipping point, which has sparked the interest of civil society, a reinvigorated and increasingly important voice globally.

Given the international attention that the illegal wildlife trade, and in particular, rhino horn and ivory trade, are receiving, there is very little chance of South Africa’s bid being successful at the next Conference of the Parties (CoP17) to CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species).

If South Africa follows through with a proposal to sell horn, in whatever form, it would be nothing more than politically naïve, flying in the face of global efforts currently underway to reduce demand and clamp down on illicit trade and poaching.  In fact, such a move could be perceived by, for example, the European Union (EU) and the US as an antagonistic attempt to render their enormous financial contributions to addressing demand, illicit trade and poaching, worthless.

This will not only be bad for rhinos but for international relations too.

Last November, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) released a report titled Horn of Contention: A Review of Literature on the Economics of Trade in Rhino Horn.  IFAW commissioned Australia-based Economists at Large to review studies on the economics of trade in endangered species and on rhino horn in particular; this with a view to providing an independent, unbiased assessment of the potential impacts of legalising regulated trade in rhino horn.

The report was clear in its findings, noting that there is a real risk that regulated trade could drive an increase in poaching through a combination of five mechanisms:

  1. Through legal and illegal markets coexisting and interacting in complex ways.
  2. Through reducing the stigma attached to consumption of the product.
  3. By potentially reducing the supply costs of illegal supply.
  4. By potentially facilitating the laundering of illegal supply in with legal supply.
  5. As a result of uncertainty around the response of illegal suppliers to competition from a legal market.

While any one of the mechanisms stated above should be a cause for concern in and of itself, the key thread throughout the economic meta-analysis is the high degree of uncertainty around the potential impacts of regulating trade.

A crucial aspect of this uncertainty relates to a very poor understanding of demand variables and how these could shift with legal, regulated trade in the mix. The real, fundamental question then becomes one of just how much risk can be tolerated in the face of this uncertainty?

Rhinos are undoubtedly valuable, but it’s high time that this value is redefined. There is an opportunity for South Africa to get it right and take the necessary action to actually deal with the poaching crisis – but this requires a major shift in focus from one which is aimed at (all things being equal) potentially driving rhinos to extinction in the wild, to one aimed at finding real, ethically sound solutions.

It is time for the government to choose what it wants.


Download the IFAW report: Horn of Contention: A Review of Literature on the Economics of Trade in Rhino Horn

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Azzedine Downes,IFAW President and CEO
President and Chief Executive Officer
Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
Director, France and Francophone Africa
Dr. Elsayed Ahmed Mohamed, Regional Director, Middle East and North Africa
Regional Director, Middle East and North Africa
Dr. Maria (Masha) N. Vorontsova, Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation
Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation Program
Faye Cuevas, Esq.
Senior Vice President
Grace Ge Gabriel, Regional Director, Asia
Regional Director, Asia
Executive Vice President
Executive Vice President
Matt Collis, Director, International Policy
Director, International Policy
Pauline Verheij, Program Manager, Wildlife Crime
Program Manager, Wildlife Crime
Rikkert Reijnen, Program Director, Wildlife Crime
Program Director, Wildlife Crime
Country Representative, Germany
Country Representative, Germany
Staci McLennan, Director, EU Office
Director, EU Office
Tania McCrea-Steele, Project Lead, Global Wildlife Cybercrime
Project Lead, Global Wildlife Cybercrime
Vivek Menon, Director of IFAW partner, Wildlife Trust of India
Consulting Senior Advisor to the CEO on Strategic Partnerships & Philanthropy